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Oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC) has a generally poor prognosis, due to the lack of effective treatment methods. Immunotherapeutic approaches based on tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) have demonstrated that durable responses are produced in some patients with solid tumours, which suggests the potential feasibility of clinical application of immunotherapy for ESCC. However, many of the basic characteristics of TILs in ESCC are poorly understood, including clonality, specificity and spatial heterogeneity of the response of TILs, which depends on the interaction between antigens and T cell receptors (TCRs). We used ultra-deep sequencing of rearranged genes in TCR β-chain (TCRβ) to profile the basic characteristics of T cells in tumour tissues (four to six regions from each tumour) as well as matched adjacent normal tissue and peripheral blood from seven patients diagnosed with primary ESCC. We found that T cell clones within ESCCs were quite different from those of the peripheral blood and even the adjacent normal tissues in general. Although there was a relatively higher degree of overlap of intratumoural TCRβ repertoires than those between the tumour and other tissues, intratumoural TCRβ repertoires were spatially heterogeneous. Due to the restricted sampling, high-throughput TCRβ sequencing could characterize the diversity and composition of a limited (compartment-dependent) fraction of the respective T cell clones in any individual ESCC, expanding our understanding of immune behaviour and immune response and shedding more light on ESCC immunotherapy. Copyright © 2016 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.