Frequent PD-L1 expression in primary and metastatic penile squamous cell carcinoma: potential opportunities for immunotherapeutic approaches

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Despite aggressive multimodal therapy, locally advanced and/or metastatic penile squamous cell carcinoma (SqCC) is associated with significant morbidity and mortality, indicating a need for new therapeutic options. Given the emerging clinical utility of immunotherapeutics, we sought to assess the incidence and potential clinical significance of PD-L1 expression in penile SqCC.

Patients and methods

Using an anti-PD-L1 primary antibody (clone 5H1), immunohistochemistry was carried out on whole tumor sections from 37 patients with penile SqCC treated at our institution between 2005 and 2013. PD-L1-positive tumors were defined as those with membranous staining in ≥5% of tumor cells. Association between PD-L1 expression and clinicopathologic parameters was examined using Fisher's exact test. Correlation between PD-L1 expression in primary tumors and matched metastases was assessed using the Spearman rank correlation coefficient (ρ). The difference in cancer-specific mortality between PD-L1-positive and -negative groups was examined using the log-rank test.


Twenty-three (62.2%) of 37 primary tumors were positive for PD-L1 expression, and there was strong positive correlation of PD-L1 expression in primary and metastatic samples (ρ = 0.72; 0.032 < P < 0.036). Primary tumor PD-L1 expression was significantly associated with usual type histology (P = 0.040) and regional lymph node metastasis (P = 0.024), as well as decreased cancer-specific survival (P = 0.011).


The majority of primary penile SqCC tumors express PD-L1, which is associated with high-risk clinicopathologic features and poor clinical outcome. These data provide a rational basis for further investigation of anti-PD-1 and anti-PD-L1 immunotherapeutics in patients with advanced penile SqCC.

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