Genome Med. 2023 Sep 18;15(1):72. doi: 10.1186/s13073-023-01218-y.
BACKGROUND: Novel immunotherapy combination therapies have improved outcomes for patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), but responses are limited to a subset of patients. Little is known about the inter- and intra-tumor heterogeneity in cellular signaling networks within the HCC tumor microenvironment (TME) that underlie responses to modern systemic therapy.
METHODS: We applied spatial transcriptomics (ST) profiling to characterize the tumor microenvironment in HCC resection specimens from a prospective clinical trial of neoadjuvant cabozantinib, a multi-tyrosine kinase inhibitor that primarily blocks VEGF, and nivolumab, a PD-1 inhibitor in which 5 out of 15 patients were found to have a pathologic response at the time of resection.
RESULTS: ST profiling demonstrated that the TME of responding tumors was enriched for immune cells and cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAF) with pro-inflammatory signaling relative to the non-responders. The enriched cancer-immune interactions in responding tumors are characterized by activation of the PAX5 module, a known regulator of B cell maturation, which colocalized with spots with increased B cell marker expression suggesting strong activity of these cells. HCC-CAF interactions were also enriched in the responding tumors and were associated with extracellular matrix (ECM) remodeling as there was high activation of FOS and JUN in CAFs adjacent to the tumor. The ECM remodeling is consistent with proliferative fibrosis in association with immune-mediated tumor regression. Among the patients with major pathologic responses, a single patient experienced early HCC recurrence. ST analysis of this clinical outlier demonstrated marked tumor heterogeneity, with a distinctive immune-poor tumor region that resembles the non-responding TME across patients and was characterized by HCC-CAF interactions and expression of cancer stem cell markers, potentially mediating early tumor immune escape and recurrence in this patient.
CONCLUSIONS: These data show that responses to modern systemic therapy in HCC are associated with distinctive molecular and cellular landscapes and provide new targets to enhance and prolong responses to systemic therapy in HCC.