Hierarchical clustering of breast carcinomas, Turashvili et al 2007
Hierarchical clustering of breast carcinomas1

Something that’s puzzled me for years is why the same kinds of tumors tend to have the same kinds of immune evasion mechanisms. And I’m not going to give an answer, just trying to share the confusion a little.

What I mean is this:

It has been demonstrated that human tumors of distinct histology express low or downregulated MHC class I surface antigens … The distinct frequency of MHC class I abnormalities is caused by total HLA class I antigen loss, HLA class I down-regulation as well as loss or down-regulation of HLA class I allo-specificities. However, the frequency and mode of these defects significantly varied between the types of tumors analysed and could be associated in some cases with microsatellite instability. 2

(My emphasis) As I’ve noted here several times (most specifically here) tumors very often evade the immune system as they mature. Cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) can control tumors in the tumors’ eary stages, but by the time we detect a tumor clinically the tumor is almost always resistant to the immune system. They do this in various ways, including inducing regulatory T cells, but also by mutating themselves to make themselves invisible to CTL (and other components of the immune system, but let’s keep it simpler for the moment).

There are a myriad ways for a tumor to become invisible, at the molecular level.  The MHC class I antigen presentation pathway is long and complex, and for any partiuclar tumor there are likely to be many different bottlenecks, points of attack.  Since tumors are all independent events3, so at first, and even second, glance, there’s no obvious reason why tumors of the same type should find a similar approach.  That is, just because two colon carcinomas look the same histologically in two different individuals, there’s no link between them.  4 Why should colon carcinomas avoid CTL using one set of mutations, while, say, breast cancers use a different set of mutations? Yet apparently, that’s what tends to happen; for example:

Mutations or deletions in β2-m were detected in colon carcinoma (21%), melanoma (15%) and other tumors (<5%). So far, no mutations in β2-m have been found in RCC lesions, bladder and laryngeal tumors despite MHC class I loss or downregulation. … haplotype loss was found in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) with a frequency of 36%, whereas in renal cell carcinoma (RCC) LOH only occurs in approximately 12% of tumor lesions analyzed. 2

If we saw these patterns only with virus-associated cancers, such as cervical carcinomas and even hepatic carcinomas, there would at least be a common link, but these tumors are not (as far as we know) caused by viruses in humans.

Part of the answer may be that the particular oncogenes associated with different tumor types lead to particular transcriptional hot-spots, and being a transcriptional hot-spot makes the region a mutational hot-spot as well, but at least as I understand it that’s not enough to account for the trends.

So why are particular MHC abnormalities linked to tumor type?  Anyone?


  1. Turashvili et al. BMC Cancer 2007 7:55   doi:10.1186/1471-2407-7-55[]
  2. Seliger, B. (2008). Molecular mechanisms of MHC class I abnormalities and APM components in human tumors Cancer Immunology, Immunotherapy, 57 (11), 1719-1726 DOI: 10.1007/s00262-008-0515-4[][]
  3. barring such weird things as canine transmissible venereal tumor and Tasmanian Devil facial tumors; see here for more on those[]
  4. The comparison is, of course, viruses.  A herpesvirus of chickens, and one of humans, may both use immune evasion mechanisms, but they have a common ancestor even if it’s a couple of hundred million years ago.[]