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Oncoimmunology. 2017; 6(2): e1253654.
Published online 2017 February 6. doi:  10.1080/2162402X.2016.1253654
PMCID: PMC5353940

Identification of genetic determinants of breast cancer immune phenotypes by integrative genome-scale analysis


Cancer immunotherapy is revolutionizing the clinical management of several tumors, but has demonstrated limited activity in breast cancer. The development of more effective treatments is hindered by incomplete knowledge of the genetic determinant of immune responsiveness. To fill this gap, we mined copy number alteration, somatic mutation, and expression data from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA). By using RNA-sequencing data from 1,004 breast cancers, we defined distinct immune phenotypes characterized by progressive expression of transcripts previously associated with immune-mediated rejection. The T helper 1 (Th-1) phenotype (ICR4), which also displays upregulation of immune-regulatory transcripts such as PDL1, PD1, FOXP3, IDO1, and CTLA4, was associated with prolonged patients' survival. We validated these findings in an independent meta-cohort of 1,954 breast cancer gene expression data. Chromosome segment 4q21, which includes genes encoding for the Th-1 chemokines CXCL9-11, was significantly amplified only in the immune favorable phenotype (ICR4). The mutation and neoantigen load progressively decreased from ICR4 to ICR1 but could not fully explain immune phenotypic differences. Mutations of TP53 were enriched in the immune favorable phenotype (ICR4). Conversely, the presence of MAP3K1 and MAP2K4 mutations were tightly associated with an immune-unfavorable phenotype (ICR1). Using both the TCGA and the validation dataset, the degree of MAPK deregulation segregates breast tumors according to their immune disposition. These findings suggest that mutation-driven perturbations of MAPK pathways are linked to the negative regulation of intratumoral immune response in breast cancer. Modulations of MAPK pathways could be experimentally tested to enhance breast cancer immune sensitivity.

KEYWORDS: Breast cancer, chemokines, exome sequencing, immune checkpoint, immune signatures, immunologic constant of rejection, MAPK mutations, PD-L1, predictive signatures, prognostic signatures, triple negative


copy number alteration
dendritic cell
differentially expressed genes
differentially mutated gene
distant metastasis free survival
false discovery rate
gene ontology
gene set enrichment analysis
genome decoration page
genomic identification of significant targets in cancer
hazard ratio
immunologic constant of rejection
intrinsic molecular subtypes
overall survival
single nucleotide polymorphism
somatic mutational load
single sample predictor
T helper
The Cancer Genome Atlas
triple-negative breast cancer
tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte
wild type


It is now broadly accepted that the presence of an active immune microenvironment can inhibit tumor growth and prevent metastatic processes. Several studies in humans across multiple cancers have conclusively shown that the presence of tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) is often associated with favorable prognosis.1 The Immunoscore worldwide consortium has recently validated and ratified the prognostic role of TILs by analyzing more than 1,300 individuals affected by stage I–III colon cancer.2

In breast cancer, the prognostic role of TILs has been conclusively demonstrated in patients bearing triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC).3-5,6 The density of TILs has also been associated with favorable response to neoadjuvant chemotherapy6-8 and adjuvant anti-HER2/neu therapy. Transcriptomic studies added molecular precision to these observations.

Early gene expression profiling investigations in the context of cancer immunotherapy have defined molecular pathways activated in responding lesions following immunotherapy.9-14 Overlapping pathways have been observed in tumors with a better prognostic connotation,15-18 and in those that are more likely to respond to immune manipulations, such as interleukin-2 (IL-2) 13,14 adoptive therapy,19 vaccination,20,21 and checkpoint inhibition.22-25

These pathways include activation of the interferon (IFN)-stimulated genes through the signal transducers and activator of transcription 1 (STAT1)/IFN-regulatory factor 1 (IRF1) axis, the recruitment of NK, cytotoxic, and T helper-1 (Th-1) cells mediated by the release of CXCR3 and CCR5 ligands, like CXCL9-11 and CCL5, respectively, and the induction of immune-effector mechanisms, such as perforin (PRF1), granzymes (GZMs), and granulysin (GNLY).

Such modules have been found to be coordinately activated in other forms of immune-mediated tissue destruction such as autoimmunity, graft-versus-host disease or allograft rejection.26-29 We refer to the genes behind these modules as the Immunologic Constant of Rejection (ICR).9,17,21,30-32 The activation of this pro-inflammatory cascade is accompanied by the counter-activation of immune-regulatory mechanisms.30,30,33 In fact, the expression of immune-regulatory markers such as programmed cell death-ligand 1 (PD-L1) and Indoleamine 2,3-Dioxygenase 1 (IDO1) associates with better responsiveness to checkpoint inhibition therapy.22,23,34

In breast cancer, most published prognostic and/or predictive gene signatures invariably include components of the ICR,8,15,35-46 as reviewed elsewhere.47 Based on this observation, we have hypothesized that two opposing cancer immune phenotypes exist.30

The first phenotype is typified by the presence of an inflammatory status dominated by a Th-1 immune response. Such tumors also display the counter-activation of suppressive mechanisms (e.g., expression of IDO1, CTLA4, CD274 [or PD-L1], PDCD1 [or PD1], and FOXP3) and have a more favorable prognosis and responsiveness to immune manipulations and to chemotherapy. The second phenotype lacks such features and is typified by unfavorable prognosis and resistance to immune manipulations and chemotherapy.30,47 We tested up-front this hypothesis comparing phenotypes with overall survival (OS) by querying The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) breast cancer datasets.

Despite checkpoint inhibitor-based immunotherapy is revolutionizing the treatment of several neoplastic conditions such as melanoma and lung cancer,30,33,47 their efficacy in breast cancer remains limited.48-50 The development of more effective treatments is hindered by incomplete knowledge of the genetic mechanism governing host–tumor interaction.

A recent study in melanoma has convincingly demonstrated that pathways implicated in neoplastic transformation such as the β-catenin-WNT signal can exert immune-suppressive functions leading to T-cell exclusion,51 and corroborating previous observations.52,53 Mutational load increases the likelihood to express altered proteins that were not subject to developmental tolerance mechanisms and may constitute neoantigens. Indeed, the number of mutations has been correlated to responsiveness of checkpoint inhibitor therapy in melanoma and lung cancer.25,54,55 In summary, efforts to elucidate molecular determinants of immune responsiveness are increasing.30,56,57

Since the causality of breast cancer immune phenotype remains elusive, we sought to disentangle the relationship between cancer genetic programs and antitumor immunity using multi-dimensional genome-scale analyses. RNA-sequencing (RNA-seq) data from TCGA consortium were used to define discrete cancer immune phenotypes. Somatic mutations and copy number alterations (CNAs) were mined to capture genetic features associated with such immune phenotypes. The main findings were validated in an independent meta-cohort of breast cancer samples.


Breast cancer immune phenotypes

To define discrete categories of breast cancer according to their immune composition, we mined RNA-seq data from 1,004 breast cancer samples collected by the TCGA consortium. We used the ICR genes and classic immune-regulatory genes (e.g., CD274/PD-L1, PDCD1/PD1, CTLA4, FOXP3, and IDO1). The ICR reflects the activation of the following pathways: Th-1 signaling (IFNG, TXB21, CD8B, CD8A, IL12B, STAT1, and IRF1), CXCR3/CCR5 chemokine ligands (CXCL9, CXCL10, and CCL5) and effector immune functions (GNLY, PRF1, GZMA, GZMB, and GZMH).9,17,21 As shown in Fig. 1A, these transcripts strongly correlated with each other (average correlation coefficient = 0.72).

Figure 1.
Consensus clustering of TCGA RNA-seq dataset defines distinct immune phenotypes of breast cancer. (A) Spearman correlation of immune activatory (red) and immune regulatory (blue) transcripts, N = 1,004; correlation coefficients are represented numerically ...

We then performed unsupervised consensus clustering based on the expression of these 20, a priori selected, representative immune genes (Fig. 1B; gene list is recapitulated in Fig. 1A and C). The optimal number of clusters was selected using the Calinski index. This metrics indicated that the best segregation a part trivial solution (i.e., number of clusters = 2) was obtained by dividing the cohort into four clusters that reflect differing magnitudes of overall gene expression (K = 4; Fig. S1). The four clusters were designated as ICR1 (N = 213), ICR2 (N = 322), ICR3 (N = 327), and ICR4 (N = 142; Fig. 1C). We posited that ICR4 tumors, marked by the highest levels of immune gene expression, equate with a strong and coordinated Th-1 immune activation, whereas by contrast, ICR1 tumors characterized by the lowest immune gene expression lack an activated immune polarization. Furthermore, these opposing immune phenotypes were separated by two intermediate expression groups exhibiting medium-low (ICR2) and medium-high (ICR3) levels of immune activation (Fig. 1C). Indeed, functional pathway analysis of the differentially expressed genes (DEG; File S1) corroborated that ICR1 and ICR4 tumors dramatically differ in terms of immune composition. As expected, the ICR4 tumors exhibited an intense activation of pathways associated with other forms of immune mediated rejection such as thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, type-1 diabetes, allograft rejection, and graft-versus-host disease, reflecting an immune response and adaptive immunity cross talk consistent with Th-1 activation (Ingenuity Pathway Analysis; Fig. S2). Additional functional analyses further confirmed the broad immune divergence of the opposing ICR phenotypes.

First, we wanted to identify the specific immune cell types activated among the ICR clusters. In particular, we deconvolved the gene-expression signals of the ICR1 and ICR4 samples with single sample GSEA 58 using 24 cell-specific signatures (597 genes).59 Doing so we obtained a vector of cell-specific enrichment scores (ES) for each patient. When hierarchical clustering was applied to the matrix of the ES, samples naturally segregate in two major clusters that perfectly separated ICR1 and ICR4 samples (Fig. 1D; statistics in File S2). Overall, ICR4 tumors were enriched in B- and T-cell transcripts. In ICR4 specimens, T cells infiltration was clearly associated with a Th-1 immune polarization, with overrepresentation of transcripts associated with cytotoxic and Th-1 cells. T-regulatory (T-reg) cells, monocyte, macrophages, neutrophils, and dendritic cells (DCs) were also more represented in the ICR4 tumors. Conversely, in ICR1, the cell-specific signatures were consistent with a scant adaptive immune response oriented toward a Th-17 polarization. Eosinophil-related transcripts were also more abundant in ICR1 samples. NK cells displayed a differential enrichment, being NK CD56dim and NK CD56bright transcripts more represented in ICR4 and ICR1 clusters, respectively.

Second, we performed supervised differential expression analysis between ICR4 vs ICR1. Network visualization based on Gene Set Enrichment Analysis (GSEA) of Gene Ontology gene sets demonstrated, in ICR4, a strong and coordinate positive regulation of adaptive immune response including pathways involved in leukocyte differentiation, cytokine production, immune effector processes, B-/T-cell activation, T-cell proliferation, and metabolic processes (Fig. 1E). Conversely, only few pathways were activated in ICR1 (e.g., synaptic transmission, structural component of muscle, and hormonal activity).

We then investigated the distribution of tumor stage and intrinsic molecular subtypes (IMS) within the ICR clusters. While stage distribution was similar across ICR groups (being stage II the most frequently represented in each subtype, Fig. 1F), an imbalance in term of IMS was noticed (Fig. 1G). Only a small proportion of Luminal A (5.4%) and Luminal B (10.9%) tumors displayed the Th-1/ICR4 phenotype in contrast with 31.9% of Basal-like and 28.6% of HER2-enriched tumors. However, as the majority of breast tumors are Luminals, the relative small proportion of Luminal cancers harboring the ICR4 phenotype constituted almost 40% of the ICR4 group. More in detail, 57% of ICR4 tumors consisted of non-Basal like subtypes (21.8% Luminal A, 15.5% Luminal B, 16.9% HER2-enriched, and 2.8% Normal-like).

We then proceeded to compare the different immune subtypes in term of survival. Although the ICR4 cluster was enriched in Basal-like tumors, which are classically characterized by worse prognosis, OS of patients bearing such immune phenotype was greater as compared with subjects bearing the other immune phenotypes (overall p value = 0.02; ICR1–ICR2–ICR3 vs ICR4: HR [95% CI] = 2.88 [1.34–6.19], p = 0.005; ICR1 vs ICR4: HR [95% CI] = 3.48 [1.54–7.87], p = 0.001); Fig. 2A).

Figure 2.
The T-helper 1 immune phenotype (ICR4) is associated with prolonged survival. (A) Kaplan–Meier overall survival curves of TCGA breast cancer RNA-seq dataset. (B) Kaplan–Meier distant metastasis free survival curves of the validation micro ...

Using quantile classifications (i.e., comparing either the lowest or the highest quartile or tertile), all the transcripts tended to be associated with increased OS (Fig. S3A). A statically significant level of association was reached using both the tertile and quartile classifications by GZMH, PRF1, GZMA, CD8A, IL12B, CCL5, and IRF1; by PDCD1/PD1, GZMB, and TBX21 using the tertile classification, and by STAT1 in the quartile comparison. The ICR score (Z-score) based on all the selected immune genes was significantly associated with improved survival in both tertile and quartile classifications. Importantly, the ICR classification was more tightly predictive of OS than quantile classifications. The median expression of all the ICR transcripts progressively decreased from ICR4 to ICR1 (Fig. S3B).

We validated our findings by applying the same stratification criteria to an integrated dataset of publicly available breast cancer gene expression data (Fig. 2B). Again, patients bearing ICR4 tumors experienced prolonged distant metastasis free survival (DMFS) as compared with other subgroups (heatmap, consensus cluster matrix, and Calinski metrics for this data set can be found in Fig. S4).

Breast cancer immune phenotypes and mutational burden

Recent work suggests an association between number of mutations and responsiveness to immunotherapy.25,54,55 Therefore, we compared the mutational load among the ICR groups. The number of non-silent mutations significantly differed among the four immune phenotypes (p = 1.10e−5, Kruskal–Wallis test), progressively increasing from ICR1 to ICR4 cluster (Fig. 3A). Nevertheless, a considerable proportion of samples belonging to ICR4 group had a relatively low mutational burden and, vice versa, a fraction of ICR1 tumors had a relatively high number of mutations, suggesting that mutational load cannot fully explain the observed differences in term of immune activations. However, mutational burden was strongly related to the IMS (p = 1.20e−32, Fig. 3A). The median (and average) number of mutations was the highest in Basal-like and HER2-enriched tumors followed by Luminal B and Luminal A subtypes, consistent with the observations of Kobolt et al.60 As expected, the number of mutations of Normal-like tumors, which are often believed to represent a mere contamination of samples with normal breast tissue,61 was extremely low. When comparison of mutational burden was performed within specific IMS, the association between mutational load and immune phenotype was lost in HER2-enriched and Basal-like subtypes. A non-statistically significant trend was still observed in Luminal A and Luminal B tumors, which became significant when Luminal A and B samples were considered together (p = 7.57e−3). Identical results were obtained by considering both silent and non-silent mutations (Fig. S5A).

Figure 3.
A high mutational load is associated with the T-helper 1 immune phenotype (ICR4) and with Basal-like and HER-2 enriched subtypes. (A) Non-silent mutation frequencies by sample, with outlier mutation numbers of > 250 have not been plotted but are ...

The increased responsiveness to immunotherapy of hyper mutated tumors has been attributed to enrichment in mutated antigens (neoantigens) that could be recognized by T cells.25,54,55 According to such model, antitumor immune responses directed against neoantigens and counteracted by immune regulatory mechanisms might be re-activated by immunomodulatory interventions such as the administration of checkpoint inhibitors. Although the total number of predicted neoepitopes or the total number of mutations potentially yielding neoepitopes differed among ICRs (similarly to what observed for mutational load; Fig. S5B and C), variations disappeared when corrected for the total number of mutations (Fig. 3B).

Finally, no differences in types of mutation (i.e., missense, non-sense, frameshift, etc.) were observed among the ICR subtypes (Fig. 3C).

Specific mutations and immune phenotypes

To identify mutations specifically associated with the level of immune activations, we compared the two extreme immune phenotypes (e.g., ICR1 and ICR4) by mining exome sequencing data. We identified 64 differentially mutated genes (DMGs) by the two groups under comparison (p < 0.01, Fisher's exact test: Fig. 4A and File S3). Five of these genes (e.g., MAP3K1, MAP2K4, TP53, RPGR, and POM121) were mutated more often than expected by chance given background mutation processes according to the MUTSIG analysis and were, therefore, considered driver mutations (highlighted in Fig. 4A).62 The majority of the DMGs showed a higher frequency of mutations in the ICR4 cluster, in part as a consequence of the greater overall mutation rate observed in these tumors (Fig. 4B). Among those genes, the most significantly DMG was TP53 (Fig. 4B), with a degree of association with immune phenotype much higher than that observed by the mutational burden (p = 3.7e−16, Fisher's exact test). TTN was another DMG strongly enriched in ICR4 (p = 2.3 e−4 Fisher's exact test). TTN is the largest polypeptide encoded by the human genome and its mutations are considered to be passenger.63 Consistently, the TTN mutation pattern was tightly associated with the degree of mutational load, whereas TP53 mutations were mostly linked to other variables such as IMS (Fig. 4A).

Figure 4.
Specific somatic mutations typify breast cancer immune phenotypes. (A) Specific differentially mutated genes in ICR's 1 and 4, identified using all genes showing a p value < 0.01 when applying the fisher test. Genes identified by MUTSIG are indicated ...

When the analysis was expanded to the other immune phenotypes, TP53 mutations displayed a coherent trend of enrichment proceeding from ICR1 to ICR4 clusters, being mutated in 14.3%, 25.7%, 36.0%, and 58.3% of ICR1, ICR2, ICR3, and ICR4 tumors, respectively (p = 2.1e−17, Cochran–Armitage test for trend; Fig. 4B).

The mutational frequency was higher in ICR1 over ICR4 groups only for two genes (i.e., MAP3K1 and MAP2K4, p = 0.0002 and p = 0.006, respectively, Fisher's exact test, Fig. 4B). Both genes are considered driver mutations and have been implicated in breast cancer oncogenesis.64,65

A progressive and significant trend, in this case in the reverse direction of the one noticed for TP53, was observed between these two MAPK mutations and immune phenotypes (Fig. 4B). MAP2K4 and MAP3K1 mutations, which occur in the same pathways, were mutually exclusive. Globally, 18% of ICR1 tumors carried either MAP3K1 or MAP2K4 mutations (MAPK-mut) vs only 1.8% of the ICR4 tumors (p = 1.13e−6, Fisher's exact test; Fig. 4B). An enrichment trend for MAPK-mut was noticed progressing from ICR4 to ICR1, being the MAPK-mut rate 10.8% and 8.9% in ICR2 and ICR3 tumors, respectively (p = 3.72e−6, Cochran–Armitage test for trend). The median proportion of mutations yielding strong neoepitopes was overall lower in the DMG group as compared to the other genes (Fig. 4D, left panel). Nevertheless, regarding MAP2K4 and MAP3K1, such proportion was within the range of the non-DMGs (Fig. 4C, right panel).

TP53 is more frequently mutated in Basal-like and HER2-enriched tumors, while MAP3K1 and MAP2K4 mutations occur almost uniquely in Luminal cancers.65,60 We, therefore, performed a correlative analysis within each IMS (Fig. 5). As for TP53 mutations, the association with ICR phenotype was lost in Basal-like tumors (p = 0.53), but still present in HER2-enriched (p = 0.048), Luminal A (p = 0.006) and Luminal B (p = 0.044) subtypes. MAP3K1 mutations remained significantly associated with ICR in Luminal A subtypes (p = 0.005), as did MAP2K4 mutations in Luminal B tumors (p = 0.023). Globally, MAP2K4 and MAP3K1 mutations were strongly associated with ICRs in Luminal samples. In particular, no ICR4 tumors carried MAP3K1 or MAP2K4 mutations, which were present in 10.5%, 12.9% and 21.5% of ICR3, ICR2, and ICR1 tumors (p = 5.3e−5). However, both TP53 and MAPK mutations (i.e., either MAP3K1 or MAP2K4) were statistically and independently associated with the immune phenotypes when tested in a multivariate model together with the IMS, whereas the number of non-silent mutations was not (data not shown).

Figure 5.
Specific somatic mutations of driver genes typify immune phenotypes of breast cancer within specific intrinsic molecular subtypes. Distribution of TP53, MAP3K1, and MAP2K mutations by ICR within each IMS. Mutation class frequency has been scaled to represent ...

As single parameter, TP53 mutation was associated with poor OS, without, however, reaching the significant level (Fig. S6A, left panel). Quite interestingly, when the analysis was stratified according to the ICRs, the putative detrimental effect of TP53 was reverted by the immune phenotype. Indeed, both ICR4 groups (i.e., ICR4-TP53 mut and ICR4-TP53 wt) have excellent prognosis while the two ICR1 groups (i.e., ICR1-TP53 mut and ICR1-TP53 wt) had a relative poor prognosis (Fig. S6B, left panel). Similarly, no association between MAPK mutations and OS was observed (Fig. S6A, right panel). When MAPK-mut status was combined with ICR status, patients bearing the ICR1 phenotype had the worse prognosis, independently of the MAPK mutational status (Fig. S6B, right panel).

Copy number alterations and immune phenotypes

To detect genomic imbalances related to the immune-phenotypic differences among the four immune phenotypes, SNPs data were processed using GISTIC v2.0 to identify broad and focal CNAs specific for each group.

Collectively, the most frequently gained regions were detected on the chromosomal arms 1q, 8q, and 16p, whereas the regions frequently lost were on 8p, 11q, and 16q (Fig. S7). Although all four ICR groups showed a similar variation in copy number changes partially reflecting the IMSs, ICR4 had a more stable CNA pattern on chromosome 16 with less amplifications in 16p and a lower number of losses in 16q (Fig. 6A).

Figure 6.
Copy number alterations characterize opposing immune phenotypes of breast cancer. (A) Visualization of CNV profiles for ICR1 and ICR4 tumors (first annotation column) by IMS (second sample annotation column). Within the chromosome plots, red indicates ...

Comparative analyses of GISTIC-defined regions with frequent low and/or high level CNA in the four ICR groups revealed very similar results in terms of number of significantly (q ≤ 0.05) altered regions (16, 18, 27, and 18 gained and 24, 37, 36, and 23 lost respectively in ICR1–ICR4; File S4A and B). The comparisons showed many aberrant regions were commonly altered in all the four ICR groups. However, some were specifically and significantly altered in a single ICR cluster (specific alterations are listed in File S4C). By comparing the number of specific and significant regions involved in CNA events in each ICR group, we found that specific chromosomal losses occurred more frequently than specific gains (6, 13, 14, and 8 losses vs 3, 4, 4, and 4 gains in ICR1, ICR2, ICR3, and ICR4, respectively).

To identify significant imbalances among immune phenotypes, we compared the frequencies of losses and gains between ICR1 and ICR4 groups at the single-gene level (File S5). Globally, 3268 and 4542 genes showed enrichment respectively in amplification or deletions in ICR4 vs ICR1 tumors. Conversely, just 35 genes, many of them located on 16p, were enriched in amplifications in ICR1 vs ICR4 samples, whereas 672 genic sequences showed a strong enrichment in deletions. More than half of the latter (n = 369) mapped to 16q chromosomal arm. Interestingly, after collecting the set of 846 immune-related genes from the Immunome database,66 we observed that 89 genes significantly amplified more frequently in ICR4 were involved in immune functions. Conversely, no immune-related genes showed significantly higher frequencies of amplification in ICR1 over ICR4. Analogously, ICR1 tumors included less immune-related genes with enhanced frequency of deletions compared to ICR4 (26 vs 137, ICR1 vs IRCR4, respectively). A graphical representation of this analysis is reported in Fig. 6B.

Immune-related genes more frequently amplified in ICR4 tumors include those encoding cytokines (IL1A–ILB [2q13], IL12A [3q25.33], IL28–IL29 [19q13.2], IL17F [6p12.2], and IL17C [16q24.3]), chemokines (CXCL12 [10q11.21], CXCL9–10–11 [4q21.1]), cytokine and chemokine receptors (IL1R1 [2q12.1], ILR2 [2q11.2], IL15RA [10p15.1], IL20RA [6q23.3], IL22RA-RA2 [6q23.3], IFNGR1 [6q23.3], and CXCR4 [2q22.1]), and interferon signaling modulators (STAT1 [2q32.2], STAT4 [2q23.2], and IFI44L [1p31]). Conversely, ICR1 tumor exhibited deletions of cytokine receptors located in 2q (IL1R1–2, and IL18R1-AP [2q12.1]), and deletions of cytokines, chemokine, and chemokine receptor genes located in 16q (IL17C, CCL22 [16q13], CX3CL1 [16q21], and CCL17 [16q21]). Deletions of CC chemokines, CC receptors (CCR1–2–3–5 [3p21.31], CCRL2 [3p21.31], CCR4 [3p22.3], CCR7 [17q21.2], and CCL5–7–8 [17q12]), and some CXC chemokines (CXCL14 [5p31.1] and CXCL16 [17p31.2]) were more frequent in ICR4 tumors. Additional relevant immunomodulatory genes significantly deleted in ICR4 samples include cytokine and cytokine-receptor genes mostly located on the chromosome arm 5q (IL4 [5q31.1], IL5 [5q31.1], IL9 [5q31.1], IL12B [5q33.3] IL13 [5q31.1], IL6ST [5q11.2], IL17B [5q32], IL31RA [5q11.2]). Other immune-related genes significantly more deleted in ICR4 over ICR1 include IL17RB [3p21.1], IL17RD [3p14.3], IL32 [16p13.3], and GZMA-K [5q11.2]) and genes involved in interferon signaling (STAT3 [17q21.2], IRF1 [5q31.1], IRF2 [4q35.1], IFI27 [14q32.12], and IFI35 [17q21.31]).

To add specificity to the analysis, we intersected the results of the differentially amplified or deleted genes with those of ICR-specific regions (File S4D). Only eight immune-related genes were at the same time differentially altered in the two opposite immune phenotypes and included in ICR-specific regions. Interestingly, such genes included the CXCR3 ligands, CXCL9, CXCL10, and CXCL11 (q = 7e−4), that are involved in the recruitment of cytotoxic and Th-1 cells and are central in the immunologic-constant of rejection signature (focal amplification of 4q21in ICR4 groups is highlighted in Fig. 6; distribution of CXCL9–11 amplifications and deletion according to the ICR subtype is showed in Fig. S8A). Although the effect of amplification on transcript expression was modest, the expression level of CXCL9, CXCL10, and CXCL11 was significantly higher in samples with gain compared to those with loss or no alterations (Fig. S8A and B). It should be mentioned that the interpretation of correlative analysis between CXCL9–11 copy number and transcript expression is challenging. In fact, upregulation of CXCL9–11, which are IFN-inducible transcripts, could occur in absence of amplification, for example, following production of IFNγ by activated T cell. In addition, such chemokines are also produced by stromal cells (lymphocytes and endothelial cells).17,19 This microenviromental interference can therefore dilute the effect of functional amplifications or deletions on transcript expression. However, CXCL9–11 copy number was inversely correlated with survival (Fig. S8C, left panel). Nevertheless, ICR4 tumors had excellent prognosis independently of the CXCL9–11 amplification, whereas ICR1 tumors amplifying CXCL9–11 had the poorer prognosis (Fig. S8C, right panel). In ICR1 tumors, the gene amplification did not equate to upregulation of the corresponding transcripts (CXCL9–11 expression was invariably very low in such tumors, see Fig. S3), suggesting that such amplification was not functionally relevant and therefore cautioning the interpretation of the survival analysis.

In summary, the correlative analyses suggest that 4q21 amplification is implicated in modulating the expression of CXCL9, CXCL10, and CXCL11, but is not sufficient to confer the protective immune phenotype.

Transcriptional pattern of MAPK-mutated cancers

Since MAPK mutations were enriched overall and within the specific IMSs (i.e., Luminal samples), we assessed the functional relevance of MAP3K1/MAP2K4 mutations by integrating mutational with transcriptomic data. We compared genes known to be part of the MAPK pathways between MAP3K1/MAP2K4-mutated vs wild-type (wt) Luminal tumors. In order to quantify the degree of MAPK deregulation, transcripts associated with MAPK mutations (MAPK-mut transcripts) were used to generate a MAPK-mut score (see Materials and Methods section). The MAPK-mut score could perfectly segregate Luminal samples according to the ICR classification (Fig. 7A, left panel). We then extended the same score to the entire ICR1–ICR4 TCGA dataset (Fig. S9, left panel). Strikingly, MAPK-mut transcripts precisely separated the entire cohort of samples according to the ICR classification, with coherent changes proceeding from ICR1 to ICR4 from most of the genes (Fig. S10). Moreover, the degree of the MAPK-pathway deregulation could stratify samples according to their immune orientation not only across but also within the IMSs (Fig. 7B, left panel). Superimposable results were obtained on the validation dataset using the MAPK-mut score (Fig. 7A and B, right panels, and Fig. S9, right panel). A schematic representation of the dysregulation of the MAPK pathways is proposed in Fig. 8.

Figure 7.
The MAPK-mutation score can segregate different immune phenotypes of breast cancer within intrinsic molecular subtypes. (A) Left panel: MAPK-pathway genes differentially expressed between MAP3K1 or MAP2K4 mutated (MAPK-mut) and wild-type TCGA Luminal ...
Figure 8.
Deregulations of the MAPK-pathway associated with MAP3K1 and MAP2K4 mutations. Summarized representation of the MAPK pathways with the stimulants and kinase cascade from top to bottom. Key molecules are represented in the figure. The red and green color ...


In the present study, we defined discrete breast cancer immune phenotypes according to the disposition of immune transcripts related to the presence of an active Th-1 immune response (e.g., ICR1, ICR2, ICR3, and ICR4). Using a discovery set of 1,004 tumor samples and a validation set of 1,954 samples, we confirmed that the Th-1 immune cancer phenotype, also displaying the activation of immune-regulatory mechanisms, is associated with favorable prognosis in breast cancer. Conversely, the scant immune response of the lymphocyte-depleted phenotype (ICR1) was oriented toward a Th-17 polarization, previously associated with unfavorable prognosis in other tumor types such as colon cancer.18 Interestingly, ICR1 cancers were enriched in eosinophil-related transcripts, which have been recently correlated with adverse prognosis in solid tumors.67

Confirmation of the prognostic significance of the immune phenotypes encouraged an analysis of genetic variables associated with and potentially determining them.

ICR4 tumors exhibited a higher frequency of amplifications and deletions as compared to ICR1 samples. These imbalances affected a considerable proportion of genes with potential immune-regulatory effect. Although it is not possible to define the net immunomodulatory impact that such alterations might have caused, some findings captured our attention. For example, ICR4 tumors were enriched in amplification of STAT1 and deletion of STAT3, which are believed to play opposing roles in the oncogenic process.68 Although STAT1 orchestrates antitumor inflammatory response, STAT3 promotes tolerogenic mechanisms and tumor growth.17,69-71 Moreover, ICR4 cancers uniquely displayed focal amplification on chromosome segment 4q21. This region contains the CXCR3 chemokines CXCL9, CXCL10, and CXCL11, which represent another critical component, together with STAT1, of the ICR. As these chemokines are implicated in the recruitment of cytotoxic and Th-1 cells,72,73 it is reasonable to speculate that constitutive amplification of such transcripts in tumor cells can enhance the production of chemo-attractant molecules favoring immune infiltrations. Indeed, amplification of such chemokine genes was association with increased transcript expression. Similarly, Bindea et al. observed in colon cancer cases that CXCL9 expression was higher in patient who had gain.59 Although increased production of such chemokines mediated by gene amplification could have influenced the recruitment of T cell, it is important to notice that such chemokines (especially CXCL10) exert both tumor-suppressing and tumor-promoting effects.17,19,31 Because of their pleiotropic effects, it is possible that the amplification of such genes could have conferred a growth advantage in certain phases of the oncogenic process while at the same time having influenced T-cell chemotaxis, which however was not able to mediate a complete tumor rejection.

Even though we detected a statistically significant correlation between mutational or neoepitope burden and strength of intratumoral response, the relationship was weak and could not fully explain immune phenotypic differences. The median number of somatic mutations in ICR4 tumors overlapped significantly with that in the ICR1 ones. Thus, it is likely that other variables contribute to the development of spontaneous antitumor immunity.

A recent analysis of the TCGA datasets reported a linear correlation between the number of somatic mutations and cytolytic activity (defined as mean expression of GZMA and PRF1 transcripts) but highly differs across multiple cancers.74 Although it is possible that a higher number of mutations increase the probability of generating mutated peptide sequences recognized as foreign by T cells, we did not detect an enrichment of neoepitopes in the immune favorable phenotype when the counts were normalized for the overall number of mutations. These observations suggest that mutations in the Th-1 enriched ICR4 tumors are not intrinsically more immunogenic than the ones in ICR1 cancers. We also observed that the correlation between mutational load and immune phenotypes was strongly dependent on IMS. The Th-1/ICR4 phenotype was enriched in Basal-like tumors, which had the highest mutational burden. Vice versa, the Th-1 depleted ICR1 phenotype was enriched in Luminal tumors, in which the number of somatic mutations was relatively low. The association between immune phenotypes and IMS is in line with previous findings showing that the highest level of immune infiltration is observed in HER2/Neu+ and triple negative/Basal-like breast cancers.75,76

When the analysis was performed within each IMS, the number of non-silent or total mutations did not differ across the four ICR clusters in Basal-like and HER-2 tumors. However, it remained significant in the Luminal tumors, mostly influenced by the small proportion of Luminal A tumors that carry a much higher number of mutations than the median for that group, (i.e., ICR4 Luminal A plot, Fig. 3A, third panel from the left). Such heterogeneity implies a strong and complex interaction between intrinsic genetic programs (in part captured by IMS), mutational burden, and intratumoral immune response.

A positive association was noticed between frequency of TP53 mutations and Th-1 infiltration. A possible explanation is that TP53 mutations are particularly immunogenic leading more frequently to the generation of neoepitopes. However, the observation that the proportion of mutations leading to neoepitopes was not higher for TP53 compared to other genes does not support this speculation. This was also the case for most other differentially mutated genes enriched in ICR4 but not for those enriched in ICR1. This interesting divergence might be the results of immune-selection processes.

In a multi-cancer study of the TCGA datasets, Rooney et al. found that TP53 mutations were inversely associated with cytotolytic activity in some tumors such as stomach, ovarian, cervical, and head and neck cancers.74 Because mutant forms of TP53 can perturb genomic-stabilizing mechanisms,77 the effect of TP53 mutations could differentially interact with other mechanisms potentially implicated with immunomodulatory functions in distinct cancer types. In breast cancer, when the analysis was carried out for each IMS, TP53 mutations were associated with the degree of the Th-1 status in Luminal samples and, to a lesser extent in HER2-enriched tumor. This was not the case for Basal-like subtypes, which displayed overall the higher frequency of TP53 mutations and the highest proportions of Th-1/ICR4 tumors. Similarly, no significant association between TP53 mutation and intratumoral immune response, as evaluated by immunohistochemistry, was observed by Kriegsmann et al.78 In the analysis of the METABRIC dataset, Quigley et al. reported that the expression of representative genes related with immune infiltration (e.g., CCR7, CD2, CD3E, LY9, PRF1) was overall the highest in Basal-like tumors.79 However, when samples were stratified according to IMS, TP53-mutant samples had the highest expression of immune related genes in Luminal tumors, whereas the reverse was observed for HER2-enriched and Basal-like tumors.79 It is tempting to speculate that globally, in breast cancer, TP53 mutations associate with perturbations that increase the likelihood to develop an antitumor immune response. Yet, in specific breast cancer subtypes, such as Basal-like and HER-2 tumors, other factors might significantly influence the development of intratumoral immune response, attenuating, or perhaps reverting, the putative immunomodulatory effect induced by TP53 mutations.

In addition to TP53, all but two differentially mutated genes were enriched in the ICR4 group. Although this enrichment could have occurred by chance as a consequence of the higher mutational load of ICR4 samples, mutations of two genes (e.g., MAP3K1 and MAP2K4) were absent in the ICR4 group, with a gradual and significant enrichment trend proceeding from ICR4 to ICR1 tumors. Most of these alterations include frame shift deletions or insertions and missense or nonsense mutations, and are predicted to be deleterious.64 Interestingly, MAP3K1 and MAP2K4 mutations were accompanied by the upregulation of their corresponding transcripts, possibly as the result of compensatory mechanisms. MAP3K1 and MAP2K4 mutations were almost exclusively observed in Luminal A and Luminal B samples, and their correlation with immune phenotypes was present within these specific subtypes. When the association with ICR was tested in a multivariate analysis together with IMS, both MAPK and TP53 mutations were retained in the model, whereas the mutational load was not.

The MAPK pathway is classically divided in four distinct MAPK cascades (e.g., ERK, JNK, p38, and BMK), which modulate a wide spectrum of cellular responses from basis to highly complex programs such as differentiation, proliferation, and apoptosis (Fig. 8).80,81 MAP3K1 (MEKK1) stimulates both MAP2K1/2-ERK1/2 and MAP2K4/7-JNK.82,83 Originally described as oncosuppressor genes, in vitro and in vivo experiments have demonstrated that MAP2K4 and MAP3K1 have both tumorigenic and tumor suppressive functions depending on cell type and experimental condition.82,83 Our transcriptomic analysis revealed that MAP2K4 and MAP3K1 mutations associate with a profound deregulation of the MAPK pathway. Importantly, the degree of MAPK-mut driven perturbations of the MAPK pathways was tightly connected with the tumor immune orientation. MAPK-mutation related transcripts could precisely segregate not only the Luminal cohorts but also the other subtypes according to the ICR status. The direction of such deregulation proceeded gradually from MAPK-mut Luminal ICR1 to wt HER2-enriched and Basal-like ICR4 tumors.

Since MAPK mutations were extremely rare in non-Luminal samples, it is possible that, in other IMSs, the described MAPK perturbations are sustained by other mechanisms. As for the different MAPK-cascades, MAPK-mutant/ICR1 samples display upregulation of the downstream mediator of the ERK and JNK cascades, (e.g., MAPK3 [or ERK1], MAPK8 [or JNK1], and MAPK9 [or JNK3]) together with overexpression of the effector of the BMK cascade, which has similar effect to that of the ERK cascade (Fig. 8).81 Activation of the JNK cascade has been shown to modulate the production of several pro-inflammatory cytokines.84 Notably, activation of the ERK cascade is critical for the production of IL-10 and implicated in the negative regulation of IL-12,85-87 with consequent impediment of Th-1 differentiation. The p38 cascade, which was also differentially deregulated in MAPK-mut and wt samples, is involved in the induction of IL-12 production, and therefore in the modulation of Th-1 polarization.85,87,88 Studies in melanoma patients have reported that ERK-cascade inhibition through BRAF-targeted therapy decreases the production of immune suppressive factors including IL-6, IL-10, and TGF-β,89 whereas BRAF-related transcripts could segregate Th-1 vs Th-17 immune phenotypes.90 Moreover, the double blockade of the ERK cascade through combined BRAF and MEK inhibition was able to upregulate the expression of tumor-associated antigens, MHC, as well as those of several others immune-related genes.91 These combinations demonstrated synergy with anti-PD1 therapy in melanoma mouse models.91 Similar results have been recently described in triple negative breast cancer, where genomic activation of the ERK cascade was associated with lower frequency of TILs after neoadjuvant chemotherapy.92

As perturbations of the MAPK pathway are linked with different immune dispositions, our findings suggest that MAPK modulation might enhance the therapeutic efficacy of immunomodulatory approaches in breast cancer. This approach could possibly broaden the benefit of immunotherapy to Luminal samples, which are in general excluded from immunotherapeutic trials.

By unveiling the putative immunomodulatory proprieties of MAP3K1 and MAP2K4 mutations, our study adds to the growing evidence that cancer genetic programs influence the development of intratumoral immune response.30 Our results may also provide indication on potential subpopulation of patients with breast cancer who may benefit from immune therapeutics. Further studies are needed to validate the determinism of our findings and give mechanist insights into the immunomodulatory proprieties of MAP3K1 and MAP2K4 in breast cancer.

Materials and methods

Data acquisition and filtering

TCGA dataset: All data acquisition and analysis was accomplished using R (3.2.2) unless mentioned otherwise. Packages used are mentioned throughout article sections. RNA-seq, clinical and copy SNP data were downloaded using TCGA assembler and our TCGAbioloinks R/Bioconductor package.93,94 Mutation data (genome.wustl.edu__IlluminaGA_curated_DNA_sequencing_level2.maf) were downloaded using the TCGA portal (N = 1,097). Data were filtered to exclude patients without RNA-seq data or clinical information. Other exclusion criteria were male gender, an unclear histology, use of neo-adjuvant therapy, and a history of other malignancy (N = 3, 9, 1, 13, 66, 12). After exclusion, analysis was performed on a dataset of 1,004 patients, 903 of which also have mutation data, 995 have CNA data, and 953 have available survival data. Normalization of TCGA RNA-seq data was performed within lanes, between lanes, and per quantile using the EDASeq package. This normalization accounts for gene-specific effects on read counts within lanes, such as those related to gene length or GC-content, and for differences between lanes in the distribution of read counts (e.g., sequencing depth). Tumor IMS (i.e., Basal-like, HER-2/neu enriched, Luminal A, and Luminal B) based on RNA-seq data were determined using the method described by Ciriello et al.95

Validation dataset: Validation cohort comprised of 1,954 tumor expression profiles of primary invasive breast cancer not receiving neo-adjuvant chemotherapy profiled with Affymetrix microarray platforms (i.e., U133A, U133A2, and U133 PLUS 2.0). Data represent different patients' populations from 16 medical centers in the USA, Europe, and Asia. Construction of this dataset is described in detail elsewhere.43,96 Briefly, raw data (CEL files) were extracted from Gene Expression Omnibus (GSE1456, GSE2034, GSE5327, GSE12093, GSE7390, GSE6532, GSE9195, GSE2603, GSE7378, GSE8193, GSE4922, GSE11121, and GSE45255), NCI's caArray database (accession: mille-00271), and the EMBL-EBI's ArrayExpress database (accession: E-TABM-158). Transcripts analyzed included the 22,268 probe sets common to the U133A, U133A2, and U133 PLUS 2.0 array platforms. Data were MAS5.0 normalized using the justMAS function in the simpleaffy library from Bioconductor97 using a trimmed mean target intensity of 600 without background correction. COMBAT empirical Bayes method was used to correct for batch effects.98 IMS (i.e., Basal-like, HER2-enriched, Luminal A, and Luminal B) were defined using the Single Sample Predictor (SSP) algorithm by Hu et al.99 utilized by Fan et al.100 Claudin-low tumors were identified by using the method of Prat et al.101 Because the algorithm used to classify the TCGA samples did not include the Claudin-low subtype, such samples were omitted in the heatmap representation of the validation dataset (Figs. 7 and S9).

Correlation matrix and consensus clustering

The correlation matrix was calculated using Spearman test and plotted using corrplot 0.73, with genes being ordered by first principal component. The consensus matrix plots were generated using the ConsensusClusterPlus 102 1.24.0 package with the following parameters: 5000 repeats, a maximum of 7 clusters, and agglomerative hierarchical clustering with ward criterion (Ward.D2) inner and complete outer linkage. Genes used for consensus clustering analyses are the 20 a priori selected immune genes (listed in Fig. 1A and C).

Heat maps and Kaplan–Meier survival plots

For the heatmaps, gplots 2.17.0 was used, and a modified version of the ggkm 103 function was created to generate the Kaplan–Meier survival curves. OS data was available for TCGA dataset and distant DMFS data for the validation data sets and were used to generate Kaplan–Meier curves. Normal-like samples, and those with missing IMS assignment or with less than 1 d follow-up, were excluded from survival analysis. To minimize population-specific bias due to patient follow-up duration, survival analysis was limited to a 10-y window; p values are based on Log-rank test. The MAPK-mut score was calculated as follows: first the Z-score of the differentially upregulated and downregulated genes between MAP3K1/MAP2K4 Luminal mutant vs Luminal wt samples belonging to the MAPK pathway (as for KEGG is calculated separately. Then the up and down rank of the samples is determined based on the Z-scores. The mean of the up and down ranks for each sample is then defined as the MAPK-mut score. Finally, by using the same genes, MAPK-mut score is portrayed to the other samples.

Differential gene expression and functional analysis

Differential gene expression analysis was carried out using the Bioconductor edgeR analysis package,104 which uses a generalized linear model with a logarithmic link function and a negative binomial error distribution in the analysis. To minimize spurious statistical tests, gene counts with low expression values were filtered out. The threshold cutoffs to identify significant DEGs were False Discovery Rate (FDR)-adjusted p value (q value) < 0.05 and absolute log-fold change (log FC) > 0.5 Gene Ontology (GO) term enrichment analysis was performed using GSEA 105 (1,000 permutations; genes ranked according to ICR4 vs ICR1 absolute log FC) and visualized by the Enrichment Map tool (The Bader lab, University of Toronto) as a plug-in of Cytoscape.106 In order to identify possible enriched molecular networks and canonical pathways, functional characterization of the DEGs with absolute log FC > 1 was performed using Ingenuity® Pathway Analysis (IPA®, QIAGEN Redwood City,

Cell type deconvolution

To estimate the enrichment of various immune cell types, gene expression deconvolution analyses were performed with single sample GSEA58 implemented in the GSVA package using the 24 immune-signatures reported in Bindea et al. 59 Hierarchical clustering with ward criterion (Ward.D2) was then applied to the matrix of the ES, in order to segregate the samples based on their immune cell composition. Differentially expressed ESs between ICR1 and ICR4 were calculated through t-test, using a cut-off of FDR-adjusted p value (q value) < 0.05.

Somatic mutations

The distribution of somatic mutations and neoepitopes among classes in comparisons was tested by Kruskal–Wallis test. DMGs between ICR1 and ICR4 were identified by Fisher's exact test for those 5,037 genes that have at least 1% mutation in one of the four CR cluster (cut-off p value = 0.01). We used the Cochran–Armitage test for trend to exclude the presence of a linear trend between the proportions of mutated samples within each ICR subtype.

Neoepitope analysis

Predicted patient-specific HLA class I binding peptides resulting from somatic mutations for individual tumor samples were obtained from Rooney et al.74 For a given mutation, the pipeline calculated binding affinities of all possible 9- and 10-mer mutant amino acid peptides overlapping the mutation site using NetMHCpan (v2.4) 107 either in the presence or absence of the somatic mutation. The corresponding germline four-digit HLA class I alleles for each sample was inferred using POLYSOLVER Bayesian classifier genotype.108 To minimize false positives, investigators considered only peptides that originate from expressed genes (median > 10 TPM in the tumor type) and show a binding affinity of < 500 nM. Using this dataset, we defined high affinity peptides as those predicted to have IC50 ≤ 50 nm or Rank score ≤ 0.5% (default cutoffs of NetMHCpan). For alleles distant to the MHC molecules included in the training of the method, Rank score is calculated as the percentage rank relative to a set of 200,000 random natural peptides. If a peptide harboring a given mutation is predicted to be a high affinity binder, whereas the original unmutated germline peptide is not predicted as such, this mutated peptide was defined as a potential strong neoepitope. We calculated immunogenic profiles for individual samples or genes as the ratio between the distinct count of mutations that lead to at least one putative strong neoepitope and the total number of distinct mutations observed in the sample or gene.

Copy number alterations

Significant genomic imbalances were based on Affymetrix SNP6.0 GeneChip arrays and processed using Genomic Identification of Significant Targets in Cancer (GISTIC) version 2.0 algorithm109 to identify broad and focal CNAs specific for each group. GISTIC computes, for each segment through the genome, a score based on the frequency of CNA combined with its amplitude, with bootstrapping to calculate the significance level in terms of FDR-adjusted p values (q values). GISTIC thresholds for calling gain and loss were set to absolute log 2 ratio > 0.1 and only CNAs with a q value < 0.05 were considered relevant for further analysis. For the generation of the ideogram plot, we made use of NCBI's Genome Decoration Page (GDP, source: BED files were generated for significant (FDR-adjusted p value (q value) ≤ 0.001, χ2 test) differently amplified or deleted genes between ICR1 and ICR4 and uploaded to the GDP tool to create an ideogram for amplification and deletion. The Immunone database66 (846 genes) was used to filter the “immune-related” genes among the all genes differentially amplified or deleted between ICR1 and ICR4.

Supplementary Material

Disclosure of potential conflicts of interest

No potential conflicts of interest were disclosed.


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