Hepatocellular carcinoma patients with high circulating cytotoxic T cells and intra-tumoral immune signature benefit from pembrolizumab: results from a single-arm phase 2 trial

Jung Yong Hong, Hee Jin Cho, Jason K. Sa, Xiaoqiao Liu, Sang Yun Ha, Taehyang Lee, Hajung Kim, Wonseok Kang, Dong Hyun Sinn, Geum Youn Gwak, Moon Seok Choi, Joon Hyeok Lee, Kwang Cheol Koh, Seung Woon Paik, Hee Chul Park, Tae Wook Kang, Hyunchul Rhim, Su Jin Lee, Razvan Cristescu, Jeeyun LeeYong Han Paik, Ho Yeong Lim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Background: A limited number of studies have characterized genomic properties of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) patients in response to anti-PD-1 immunotherapy. Methods: Herein, we performed comprehensive molecular characterization of immediate (D-42 to D-1) pre-treatment tumor biopsy specimens from 60 patients with sorafenib-failed HCC in a single-arm prospective phase II trial of pembrolizumab. Objective response rate was the primary efficacy endpoint. We used whole-exome sequencing, RNA sequencing, and correlative analysis. In addition, we performed single-cell RNA sequencing using peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Results: The overall response rate of pembrolizumab in sorafenib-failed HCC patients was 10% ([6/60] 95% CI, 2.4–17.6). In a univariate analysis using clinicopathological features, female gender, PD-L1 positivity, and low neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratio (NLR) were identified as contributing factors to pembrolizumab response. Somatic mutations in CTNNB1 and genomic amplifications in MET were found only in non-responders. Transcriptional profiles through RNA sequencing identified that pembrolizumab responders demonstrated T cell receptor (TCR) signaling activation with expressions of MHC genes, indicating increased levels of T cell cytotoxicity. In single-cell sequencing from 10 pre- and post-treatment peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), patients who achieved a partial response or stable disease exhibited immunological shifts toward cytotoxic CD8+ T cells. Conversely, patients with progressive disease showed an increased number of both CD14+ and CD16+ monocytes and activation of neutrophil-associated pathways. Conclusions: Taken together, HCC patients with infiltration of cytotoxic T cells, along with increased active circulating CD8+ T cells during pembrolizumab treatment and down-regulation of neutrophil-associated markers, significantly benefited from pembrolizumab treatment. Trial registration: NCT#03163992 (first posted: May 23, 2017).

Original languageEnglish
Article number1
JournalGenome Medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Alex Snyder, Choonghoon Lee, and Abby Siegel at MSD for useful discussions and review of our manuscript and M.H.Oh at Samsung Medical Information and Media Services at Samsung Medical Center for dedicated support with image work.

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the MISP program at Merck & Co., Inc., Kenilworth, NJ, USA (drug, pembrolizumab, donation only). This research was also supported by a grant of the Korea Health Technology R&D Project through the Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI), funded by the Ministry of Health & Welfare, Republic of Korea (grant number: HR20C0025).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).


  • Biomarkers
  • Carcinoma
  • Hepatocellular
  • Pembrolizumab
  • Tumor


Dive into the research topics of 'Hepatocellular carcinoma patients with high circulating cytotoxic T cells and intra-tumoral immune signature benefit from pembrolizumab: results from a single-arm phase 2 trial'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this