Utilizing sets of pancreatic cancer patients who differed significantly in median survival (6 years vs. 0.8 months), Balachandran et al. demonstrated that the long-term survivors exhibited superiority for multiple markers of immune activation, and that neoantigen load and either CD8+ T cell infiltration or TCR polyclonality were correlated with longer survival. A neoantigen quality score, based on molecular mimicry to known epitopes from infectious agents, independently stratified patients, suggesting a possible evolutionary dynamic sculpting the TCR repertoire.
Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma is a lethal cancer with fewer than 7% of patients surviving past 5 years. T-cell immunity has been linked to the exceptional outcome of the few long-term survivors, yet the relevant antigens remain unknown. Here we use genetic, immunohistochemical and transcriptional immunoprofiling, computational biophysics, and functional assays to identify T-cell antigens in long-term survivors of pancreatic cancer. Using whole-exome sequencing and in silico neoantigen prediction, we found that tumours with both the highest neoantigen number and the most abundant CD8+ T-cell infiltrates, but neither alone, stratified patients with the longest survival. Investigating the specific neoantigen qualities promoting T-cell activation in long-term survivors, we discovered that these individuals were enriched in neoantigen qualities defined by a fitness model, and neoantigens in the tumour antigen MUC16 (also known as CA125). A neoantigen quality fitness model conferring greater immunogenicity to neoantigens with differential presentation and homology to infectious disease-derived peptides identified long-term survivors in two independent datasets, whereas a neoantigen quantity model ascribing greater immunogenicity to increasing neoantigen number alone did not. We detected intratumoural and lasting circulating T-cell reactivity to both high-quality and MUC16 neoantigens in long-term survivors of pancreatic cancer, including clones with specificity to both high-quality neoantigens and predicted cross-reactive microbial epitopes, consistent with neoantigen molecular mimicry. Notably, we observed selective loss of high-quality and MUC16 neoantigenic clones on metastatic progression, suggesting neoantigen immunoediting. Our results identify neoantigens with unique qualities as T-cell targets in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. More broadly, we identify neoantigen quality as a biomarker for immunogenic tumours that may guide the application of immunotherapies.