An ecological measure of immune-cancer colocalization as a prognostic factor for breast cancer

Carlo Maley, Konrad Koelble, Rachael Natrajan, C Athena Aktipis, Yinyin Yuan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Scopus citations


Abundance of immune cells has been shown to have prognostic and predictive significance in many tumor types. Beyond abundance, the spatial organization of immune cells in relation to cancer cells may also have significant functional and clinical implications. However there is a lack of systematic methods to quantify spatial associations between immune and cancer cells. Methods: We applied ecological measures of species interactions to digital pathology images for investigating the spatial associations of immune and cancer cells in breast cancer. We used the Morisita-Horn similarity index, an ecological measure of community structure and predator-prey interactions, to quantify the extent to which cancer cells and immune cells colocalize in whole-tumor histology sections. We related this index to disease-specific survival of 486 women with breast cancer and validated our findings in a set of 516 patients from different hospitals. Results: Colocalization of immune cells with cancer cells was significantly associated with a disease-specific survival benefit for all breast cancers combined. In HER2-positive subtypes, the prognostic value of immune-cancer cell colocalization was highly significant and exceeded those of known clinical variables. Furthermore, colocalization was a significant predictive factor for long-term outcome following chemotherapy and radiotherapy in HER2 and Luminal A subtypes, independent of and stronger than all known clinical variables. Conclusions: Our study demonstrates how ecological methods applied to the tumor microenvironment using routine histology can provide reproducible, quantitative biomarkers for identifying high-risk breast cancer patients. We found that the clinical value of immune-cancer interaction patterns is highly subtype-specific but substantial and independent to known clinicopathologic variables that mostly focused on cancer itself. Our approach can be developed into computer-assisted prediction based on histology samples that are already routinely collected.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number131
JournalBreast Cancer Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 22 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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