Although the involvement of intra-tumor genetic heterogeneity in tumor progression, treatment resistance, and metastasis is established, genetic heterogeneity is seldom examined in clinical trials or practice. Many studies of heterogeneity have had prespecified markers for tumor subpopulations, limiting their generalizability, or have involved massive efforts such as separate analysis of hundreds of individual cells, limiting their clinical use. We recently developed a general measure of intra-tumor genetic heterogeneity based on whole-exome sequencing (WES) of bulk tumor DNA, called mutant-allele tumor heterogeneity (MATH). Here, we examine data collected as part of a large, multi-institutional study to validate this measure and determine whether intra-tumor heterogeneity is itself related to mortality.
Methods and Findings
Clinical and WES data were obtained from The Cancer Genome Atlas in October 2013 for 305 patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), from 14 institutions. Initial pathologic diagnoses were between 1992 and 2011 (median, 2008). Median time to death for 131 deceased patients was 14 mo; median follow-up of living patients was 22 mo. Tumor MATH values were calculated from WES results. Despite the multiple head and neck tumor subsites and the variety of treatments, we found in this retrospective analysis a substantial relation of high MATH values to decreased overall survival (Cox proportional hazards analysis: hazard ratio for high/low heterogeneity, 2.2; 95% CI 1.4 to 3.3). This relation of intra-tumor heterogeneity to survival was not due to intra-tumor heterogeneity’s associations with other clinical or molecular characteristics, including age, human papillomavirus status, tumor grade and TP53 mutation, and N classification. MATH improved prognostication over that provided by traditional clinical and molecular characteristics, maintained a significant relation to survival in multivariate analyses, and distinguished outcomes among patients having oral-cavity or laryngeal cancers even when standard disease staging was taken into account. Prospective studies, however, will be required before MATH can be used prognostically in clinical trials or practice. Such studies will need to examine homogeneously treated HNSCC at specific head and neck subsites, and determine the influence of cancer therapy on MATH values. Analysis of MATH and outcome in human-papillomavirus-positive oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma is particularly needed.
To our knowledge this study is the first to combine data from hundreds of patients, treated at multiple institutions, to document a relation between intra-tumor heterogeneity and overall survival in any type of cancer. We suggest applying the simply calculated MATH metric of heterogeneity to prospective studies of HNSCC and other tumor types.
In this study, Rocco and colleagues examine data collected as part of a large, multi-institutional study, to validate a measure of tumor heterogeneity called MATH and determine whether intra-tumor heterogeneity is itself related to mortality.
Normally, the cells in human tissues and organs only reproduce (a process called cell division) when new cells are needed for growth or to repair damaged tissues. But sometimes a cell somewhere in the body acquires a genetic change (mutation) that disrupts the control of cell division and allows the cell to grow continuously. As the mutated cell grows and divides, it accumulates additional mutations that allow it to grow even faster and eventually from a lump, or tumor (cancer). Other mutations subsequently allow the tumor to spread around the body (metastasize) and destroy healthy tissues. Tumors can arise anywhere in the body—there are more than 200 different types of cancer—and about one in three people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime. Many cancers can now be successfully treated, however, and people often survive for years after a diagnosis of cancer before, eventually, dying from another disease.
Why Was This Study Done?
The gradual acquisition of mutations by tumor cells leads to the formation of subpopulations of cells, each carrying a different set of mutations. This “intra-tumor heterogeneity” can produce tumor subclones that grow particularly quickly, that metastasize aggressively, or that are resistant to cancer treatments. Consequently, researchers have hypothesized that high intra-tumor heterogeneity leads to worse clinical outcomes and have suggested that a simple measure of this heterogeneity would be a useful addition to the cancer staging system currently used by clinicians for predicting the likely outcome (prognosis) of patients with cancer. Here, the researchers investigate whether a measure of intra-tumor heterogeneity called “mutant-allele tumor heterogeneity” (MATH) is related to mortality (death) among patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC)—cancers that begin in the cells that line the moist surfaces inside the head and neck, such as cancers of the mouth and the larynx (voice box). MATH is based on whole-exome sequencing (WES) of tumor and matched normal DNA. WES uses powerful DNA-sequencing systems to determine the variations of all the coding regions (exons) of the known genes in the human genome (genetic blueprint).
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers obtained clinical and WES data for 305 patients who were treated in 14 institutions, primarily in the US, after diagnosis of HNSCC from The Cancer Genome Atlas, a catalog established by the US National Institutes of Health to map the key genomic changes in major types and subtypes of cancer. They calculated tumor MATH values for the patients from their WES results and retrospectively analyzed whether there was an association between the MATH values and patient survival. Despite the patients having tumors at various subsites and being given different treatments, every 10% increase in MATH value corresponded to an 8.8% increased risk (hazard) of death. Using a previously defined MATH-value cutoff to distinguish high- from low-heterogeneity tumors, compared to patients with low-heterogeneity tumors, patients with high-heterogeneity tumors were more than twice as likely to die (a hazard ratio of 2.2). Other statistical analyses indicated that MATH provided improved prognostic information compared to that provided by established clinical and molecular characteristics and human papillomavirus (HPV) status (HPV-positive HNSCC at some subsites has a better prognosis than HPV-negative HNSCC). In particular, MATH provided prognostic information beyond that provided by standard disease staging among patients with mouth or laryngeal cancers.
What Do These Findings Mean?
By using data from more than 300 patients treated at multiple institutions, these findings validate the use of MATH as a measure of intra-tumor heterogeneity in HNSCC. Moreover, they provide one of the first large-scale demonstrations that intra-tumor heterogeneity is clinically important in the prognosis of any type of cancer. Before the MATH metric can be used in clinical trials or in clinical practice as a prognostic tool, its ability to predict outcomes needs to be tested in prospective studies that examine the relation between MATH and the outcomes of patients with identically treated HNSCC at specific head and neck subsites, that evaluate the use of MATH for prognostication in other tumor types, and that determine the influence of cancer treatments on MATH values. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that MATH should be considered as a biomarker for survival in HNSCC and other tumor types, and raise the possibility that clinicians could use MATH values to decide on the best treatment for individual patients and to choose patients for inclusion in clinical trials.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001786.
The US National Cancer Institute (NCI) provides information about cancer and how it develops and about head and neck cancer (in English and Spanish)
Cancer Research UK, a not-for-profit organization, provides general information about cancer and how it develops, and detailed information about head and neck cancer; the Merseyside Regional Head and Neck Cancer Centre provides patient stories about HNSCC
Wikipedia provides information about tumor heterogeneity, and about whole-exome sequencing (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
Information about The Cancer Genome Atlas is available
A PLOS Blog entry by Jessica Wapner explains more about MATH