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Absolute lymphocyte count is associated with survival in ovarian cancer independent of tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes

Katy Milne1, Cheryl Alexander2, John R Webb13, Winnie Sun1, Kristy Dillon1, Steve E Kalloger4, C Blake Gilks4, Blaise Clarke5, Martin Köbel6 and Brad H Nelson137*

Author Affiliations

1 Trev and Joyce Deeley Research Centre, BC Cancer Agency, Victoria, BC, Canada

2 BC Cancer Agency, Victoria, BC, Canada

3 Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada

4 Genetic Pathology Evaluation Centre of the Prostate Research Centre, Department of Pathology, Vancouver General Hospital, and Gynecology Tumour Group, British Columbia Cancer Agency, Vancouver, BC, Canada

5 Department of Pathology, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada

6 Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, University of Calgary, Calgary Laboratory Services, Calgary, AB, Canada

7 Department of Medical Genetics, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

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Journal of Translational Medicine 2012, 10:33  doi:10.1186/1479-5876-10-33

Published: 27 February 2012



The immune system strongly influences outcome in patients with ovarian cancer. In particular, the absolute lymphocyte count in peripheral blood (ALC) and the presence of tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL) have each been associated with favourable prognosis. However, the mechanistic relationships between ALC, TIL and prognosis are poorly understood. We hypothesized that high ALC values might be associated with stronger tumor immunity as manifested by increased TIL, decreased tumor burden and longer survival.


ALC values were collected from patient records ≥ 2 years before, during or after primary treatment for high-grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSC). Lymphocyte subsets were assessed in peripheral blood by flow cytometry. CD8+ and CD20+ TIL were assessed by immunohistochemistry.


Overall, patients had normal ALC values two or more years prior to diagnosis of HGSC. These values were not predictive of disease severity or survival upon subsequent development of HGSC. Rather, ALC declined upon development of HGSC in proportion to disease burden. This decline involved all lymphocyte subsets. ALC increased following surgery, remained stable during chemotherapy, but rarely recovered to pre-diagnostic levels. ALC values recorded at diagnosis did not correlate with CD8+ or CD20+ TIL but were associated with progression-free survival.


Patients with high intrinsic ALC values show no clinical or survival advantage upon subsequent development of HGSC. ALC values at diagnosis are prognostic due to an association with disease burden rather than TIL. Therapeutic enhancement of ALC may be necessary but not sufficient to improve survival in HGSC.

Ovarian cancer; Tumor infiltrating lymphocytes; Prognosis; Tumor immunology