Inflammatory and regulatory T cells contribute to a unique immune microenvironment in tumor tissue of colorectal cancer patients



Colorectal cancer is one of the five leading causes of cancer mortality worldwide. The mechanisms of pathogen clearance, inflammation and regulation by T cells in the healthy bowel are also important in controlling tumor growth. The majority of studies analyzing T cells and their relationship to colorectal tumor growth have focused on individual T cell markers or gene clusters and thus the complexity of the T cell response contributing to the growth of the tumor is not clear. We have studied the T cells in colorectal cancer patients and have defined a unique T cell signature for colorectal tumor tissue. Using a novel analytical flow cytometric approach in concert with confocal microscopy, we have shown that the tumor has a lower frequency of effector T cells (CD69+), but a higher frequency of both regulatory (CD25hi Foxp3+) and inflammatory T cells (IL-17+) compared with associated nontransformed bowel tissue. We have also identified minor populations of T cells expressing conventional markers of both inflammatory and regulatory T cells (CD4+IL-17+Foxp3+) in the tumor tissue. These cells may represent intermediate populations or they may dictate an inflammatory versus regulatory function in surrounding T cells. Together, these data describe an immune microenvironment in colorectal cancer unique to the tumor tissue and distinct from the surrounding healthy bowel tissue, and this distinct environment is reflected by a gradient of T cells expressing markers of multiple T cell populations. These findings may be used to improve diagnosis and prognosis of colorectal cancer patients.