Cytokine plasma levels: reliable predictors for radiation pneumonitis?

Claudia E Rübe, Jan Palm, Michael Erren, Jochen Fleckenstein, Jochem König, Klaus Remberger, Christian Rübe
PloS One 2008, 3 (8): e2898

BACKGROUND: Radiotherapy (RT) is the primary treatment modality for inoperable, locally advanced non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC), but even with highly conformal treatment planning, radiation pneumonitis (RP) remains the most serious, dose-limiting complication. Previous clinical reports proposed that cytokine plasma levels measured during RT allow to estimate the individual risk of patients to develop RP. The identification of such cytokine risk profiles would facilitate tailoring radiotherapy to maximize treatment efficacy and to minimize radiation toxicity. However, cytokines are produced not only in normal lung tissue after irradiation, but are also over-expressed in tumour cells of NSCLC specimens. This tumour-derived cytokine production may influence circulating plasma levels in NSCLC patients. The aim of the present study was to investigate the prognostic value of TNF-alpha, IL-1beta, IL-6 and TGF-beta1 plasma levels to predict radiation pneumonitis and to evaluate the impact of tumour-derived cytokine production on circulating plasma levels in patients irradiated for NSCLC.

METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: In 52 NSCLC patients (stage I-III) cytokine plasma levels were investigated by ELISA before and weekly during RT, during follow-up (1/3/6/9 months after RT), and at the onset of RP. Tumour biopsies were immunohistochemically stained for IL-6 and TGF-beta1, and immunoreactivity was quantified (grade 1-4). RP was evaluated according to LENT-SOMA scale. Tumour response was assessed according to RECIST criteria by chest-CT during follow-up. In our clinical study 21 out of 52 patients developed RP (grade I/II/III/IV: 11/3/6/1 patients). Unexpectedly, cytokine plasma levels measured before and during RT did not correlate with RP incidence. In most patients IL-6 and TGF-beta1 plasma levels were already elevated before RT and correlated significantly with the IL-6 and TGF-beta1 production in corresponding tumour biopsies. Moreover, IL-6 and TGF-beta1 plasma levels measured during follow-up were significantly associated with the individual tumour responses of these patients.

CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: The results of this study did not confirm that cytokine plasma levels, neither their absolute nor any relative values, may identify patients at risk for RP. In contrast, the clear correlations of IL-6 and TGF-beta1 plasma levels with the cytokine production in corresponding tumour biopsies and with the individual tumour responses suggest that the tumour is the major source of circulating cytokines in patients receiving RT for advanced NSCLC.


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