BACKGROUND: Microsatellite instability (MSI) has emerged as a predictive biomarker for immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy. Cancer heterogeneity represents a potential obstacle for the analysis of predicitive biomarkers. MSI has been reported in pancreatic cancer, but data on the possible extent of intratumoral heterogeneity are lacking.
METHODS: To study MSI heterogeneity in pancreatic cancer, a tissue microarray (TMA) comprising 597 tumors was screened by immunohistochemistry with antibodies for the mismatch repair (MMR) proteins MLH1, PMS2, MSH2, and MSH6.
RESULTS: In six suspicious cases, large section immunohistochemistry and microsatellite analysis (Bethesda panel) resulted in the identification of 4 (0.8%) validated MSI cases out of 480 interpretable pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomas. MSI was absent in 55 adenocarcinomas of the ampulla of Vater and 7 acinar cell carcinomas. MMR deficiency always involved MSH6 loss, in three cases with additional loss of MSH2 expression. Three cancers were MSI-high and one case with isolated MSH6 loss was MSS in PCR analysis. The analysis of 44 cancer-containing tumor blocks revealed that the loss of MMR protein expression was always homogeneous in affected tumors. Automated digital image analysis of CD8 immunostaining demonstrated markedly higher CD8 + tumor infiltrating lymphocytes in tumors with (mean = 685, median = 626) than without (mean = 227; median = 124) MMR deficiency (p < 0.0001), suggesting a role of MSI for immune response.
CONCLUSIONS: Our data suggest that MSI occurs early in a small subset of ductal adenocarcinomas of the pancreas and that immunohistochemical MMR analysis on limited biopsy or cytology material may be sufficient to estimate MMR status of the entire cancer mass.