Epigenetic quantification of circulating immune cells in peripheral blood of triple-negative breast cancer patients
Background. A shift in the proportions of blood immune cells is a hallmark of cancer development. Here, we investigated whether methylation-derived immune cell type ratios and methylation-derived neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratios (mdNLRs) are associated with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). Methods. Leukocyte subtype-specific unmethylated/methylated CpG sites were selected, and methylation levels at these sites were used as proxies for immune cell type proportions and mdNLR estimation in 231 TNBC cases and 231 age-matched controls. Data were validated using the Houseman deconvolution method. Additionally, the natural killer (NK) cell ratio was measured in a prospective sample set of 146 TNBC cases and 146 age-matched controls. Results. The mdNLRs were higher in TNBC cases compared with controls and associated with TNBC (odds ratio (OR) range (2.66-4.29), all Padj. < 1e−04). A higher neutrophil ratio and lower ratios of NK cells, CD4 + T cells, CD8 + T cells, monocytes, and B cells were associated with TNBC. The strongest association was observed with decreased NK cell ratio (OR range (1.28-1.42), all Padj. < 1e−04). The NK cell ratio was also significantly lower in pre-diagnostic samples of TNBC cases compared with controls (P = 0.019). Conclusion. This immunomethylomic study shows that a shift in the ratios/proportions of leukocyte subtypes is associated with TNBC, with decreased NK cell showing the strongest association. These findings improve our knowledge of the role of the immune system in TNBC and point to the possibility of using NK cell level as a non-invasive molecular marker for TNBC risk assessment, early detection, and prevention.