Evaluation of NTRK immunohistochemistry as a screening method for NTRK gene fusion detection in non-small cell lung cancer

Purpose: The small molecule inhibitors larotrectinib and entrectinib have recently been approved as cancer agnostic drugs in patients with tumours harbouring a rearrangement of the neurotrophic tropomyosin receptor kinase (NTRK). These oncogenic fusions are estimated to occur in 0.1-3 % of non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC). Although molecular techniques are most reliable for fusion detection, immunohistochemical analysis is considered valuable for screening. Therefore, we evaluated the newly introduced diagnostic immunohistochemical assay (clone EPR17341) on a representative NSCLC cohort.

Methods: Cancer tissue from 688 clinically and molecularly extensively annotated NSCLC patients were comprised on tissue microarrays and stained with the pan-TRK antibody clone EPR17341. Positive cases were further analysed with the TruSight Tumor 170 RNA assay (Illumina). Selected cases were also tested with a NanoString NTRK fusion assay. For 199 cases, NTRK RNA expression data were available from previous RNA sequencing analysis.

Results: Altogether, staining patterns for 617 NSCLC cases were evaluable. Of these, four cases (0.6 %) demonstrated a strong diffuse cytoplasmic and membranous staining, and seven cases a moderate staining (1.1 %). NanoString or TST170-analysis could not confirm an NTRK fusion in any of the IHC positive cases, or any of the cases with high mRNA levels. In the four cases with strong staining intensity in the tissue microarray, whole section staining revealed marked heterogeneity of NTRK protein expression.

Conclusion: The presence of NTRK fusion genes in non-small cell lung cancer is exceedingly rare. The use of the immunohistochemical NTRK assay will result in a small number of false positive cases. This should be considered when the assay is applied as a screening tool in clinical diagnostics.

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