The tumor microenvironment can be classified into immunologically active “inflamed” tumors and inactive “non-inflamed” tumors based on the infiltration of cytotoxic immune cells. Previous studies on liver cancer have reported a superior prognosis for inflamed tumors compared to non-inflamed tumors. However, liver cancer is highly heterogeneous immunologically and genetically, and a finer classification of the liver cancer microenvironment may improve our understanding of its immunological diversity and response to immune therapy.
We characterized the immune gene signatures of 234 primary liver cancers, mainly virus-related, from a Japanese population using RNA-Seq of tumors and matched non-tumorous hepatitis livers. We then compared them with the somatic alterations detected using the whole-genome sequencing.
Liver cancers expressed lower levels of immune marker genes than non-tumorous hepatitis livers, indicating immunosuppression in the tumor microenvironment. Several immunosuppression mechanisms functioned actively and mutually exclusively, resulting in four immune subclasses of liver cancer: tumor-associated macrophage (TAM), CTNNB1, cytolytic activity (CYT), and regulatory T cell (Treg). The CYT and Treg subclasses represented inflamed tumors, while the TAM and CTNNB1 subclasses represented non-inflamed tumors. The TAM subclass, which comprised 31% of liver cancers, showed a poor survival, expressed elevated levels of extracellular matrix genes, and was associated with somatic mutations of chromatin regulator ARID2. The results of cell line experiments suggested a functional link between ARID2 and chemokine production by liver cancer cells.
Primary liver cancer was classified into four subclasses based on mutually exclusive mechanisms for immunosuppression. This classification indicate the importance of immunosuppression mechanisms, such as TAM and Treg, as therapeutic targets for liver cancer.
The Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED).

Copyright © 2020 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.