Colorectal cancers (CRCs) with microsatellite instability-high (MSI-H) are hypermutated tumors and are generally regarded as immunogenic. However, their heterogeneous immune responses and underlying molecular characteristics remain largely unexplained.
We conducted a retrospective analysis of 73 primary MSI-H CRC tissues to characterize heterogeneous immune subgroups. Based on combined tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte (TIL) immunoscore and tertiary lymphoid structure (TLS) activity, MSI-H CRCs were classified into immune-high, immune-intermediate, and immune-low subgroups. Of these, the immune-high and immune-low subgroups were further analyzed using whole-exome and transcriptome sequencing.
We found considerable variations in immune parameters between MSI-H CRCs, and immune subgrouping of MSI-H CRCs was performed accordingly. The TIL densities and TLS activities of immune-low MSI-H CRCs were comparable to those of an immune-low or immune-intermediate subgroup of microsatellite-stable CRCs. There were remarkable differences between immune-high and immune-low MSI-H CRCs, including their pathological features (medullary vs mucinous), genomic alterations (tyrosine kinase fusions vs KRAS mutations), and activated signaling pathways (immune-related vs Wnt and Notch signaling), whereas no significant differences were found in tumor mutational burden (TMB) and neoantigen load. The immune-low MSI-H CRCs were subdivided by the consensus molecular subtype (CMS1 vs CMS3) with different gene expression signatures (mesenchymal/stem-like vs epithelial/goblet-like), suggesting distinct immune evasion mechanisms. Angiogenesis and CD200 were identified as potential therapeutic targets in immune-low CMS1 and CMS3 MSI-H CRCs, respectively.
MSI-H CRCs are immunologically heterogeneous, regardless of TMB. The unusual immune-low MSI-H CRCs are characterized by mucinous histology, KRAS mutations, and Wnt/Notch activation, and can be further divided into distinct gene expression subtypes, including CMS4-like CMS1 and CMS3. Our data provide novel insights into precise immunotherapeutic strategies for subtypes of MSI-H tumors.