Original Article

Clinical significance of the immune cell landscape in hepatocellular carcinoma patients with different degrees of fibrosis

Xiaofeng Tang, Zheyue Shu, Weichen Zhang, Longyu Cheng, Jun Yu, Min Zhang, Shusen Zheng


Background: The major causes of morbidity and mortality of patients with chronic liver disease are liver fibrosis and cirrhosis. Previous studies have been concerned with immune dysfunction in the pathogenesis of cirrhosis progress. However, the potential molecular mechanism of how the liver’s fibrotic state favors tumor progression is still unclear. We attempted to reveal deviations of the immune cell landscape between various liver tissues and identify key biomarkers associated with patients’ outcomes.
Method: CIBERSORT was used for estimating the proportions of immune cells in various liver tissues. Comparative studies were carried out by Kruskal-Wallis test and Wilcoxon test. For survival analyses, the Cox proportional hazard regression model, Kaplan-Meier estimates, and log-rank test were used.
Results: Significantly different adaptive and innate immune cell types were selected, including T cells, plasma cells, and resting mast cells. Meanwhile, the immune cell landscapes in The Cancer Genome Atlas’ (TCGA) hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) patients with different degrees of fibrosis were also calculated. Comparative studies and survival analysis were carried out. Resting mast cell and activated NK cells in HCC patients with fibrosis was significantly lower than that in other HCC patients without fibrosis. Then, the potential genes involved in immune cells and significantly associated with patients’ outcome were identified. These genes may be potential novel checkpoints for immunotherapy, including PVRIG related to NK resting/activated cells and T cell CD8+ infiltration which was recently targeted in breast cancer. Furthermore, Pearson correlation coefficient analysis suggested that PVRIG is significantly positively related to other checkpoint molecules and Teff gene signatures.
Conclusions: Alternative treatments, including immunotherapies, are necessary and urgent for HCC. Although checkpoint inhibitors that block CTLA-4 and PD-1 have improved cancer immunotherapies, targeting additional checkpoint receptors may be required to broaden patient response to immunotherapy. Our studies may find possible ways to select novel targets and improve immunotherapy efficacy by disrupting their function and promoting immune infiltration in advanced HCC patients with higher fibrosis and even cirrhosis.