Paul Pharoah and colleagues evaluate the prognostic significance of immunohistochemical subtype classification in more than 10,000 breast cancer cases with early disease, and examine the influence of a patient's survival time on the prediction of future survival.
Immunohistochemical markers are often used to classify breast cancer into subtypes that are biologically distinct and behave differently. The aim of this study was to estimate mortality for patients with the major subtypes of breast cancer as classified using five immunohistochemical markers, to investigate patterns of mortality over time, and to test for heterogeneity by subtype.
We pooled data from more than 10,000 cases of invasive breast cancer from 12 studies that had collected information on hormone receptor status, human epidermal growth factor receptor-2 (HER2) status, and at least one basal marker (cytokeratin [CK]5/6 or epidermal growth factor receptor [EGFR]) together with survival time data. Tumours were classified as luminal and nonluminal tumours according to hormone receptor expression. These two groups were further subdivided according to expression of HER2, and finally, the luminal and nonluminal HER2-negative tumours were categorised according to expression of basal markers. Changes in mortality rates over time differed by subtype. In women with luminal HER2-negative subtypes, mortality rates were constant over time, whereas mortality rates associated with the luminal HER2-positive and nonluminal subtypes tended to peak within 5 y of diagnosis and then decline over time. In the first 5 y after diagnosis the nonluminal tumours were associated with a poorer prognosis, but over longer follow-up times the prognosis was poorer in the luminal subtypes, with the worst prognosis at 15 y being in the luminal HER2-positive tumours. Basal marker expression distinguished the HER2-negative luminal and nonluminal tumours into different subtypes. These patterns were independent of any systemic adjuvant therapy.
The six subtypes of breast cancer defined by expression of five markers show distinct behaviours with important differences in short term and long term prognosis. Application of these markers in the clinical setting could have the potential to improve the targeting of adjuvant chemotherapy to those most likely to benefit. The different patterns of mortality over time also suggest important biological differences between the subtypes that may result in differences in response to specific therapies, and that stratification of breast cancers by clinically relevant subtypes in clinical trials is urgently required.
Each year, more than one million women discover they have breast cancer. Breast cancer begins when cells in the breast's milk-producing glands or in the tubes (ducts) that take milk to the nipples acquire genetic changes that allow them to divide uncontrollably and to move around the body (metastasize). The uncontrolled cell division leads to the formation of a lump that can be detected by mammography (a breast X-ray) or by manual breast examination. Breast cancer is treated by surgical removal of the lump or, if the cancer has started to spread, by removal of the whole breast (mastectomy). Surgery is usually followed by radiotherapy or chemotherapy. These “adjuvant” therapies are designed to kill any remaining cancer cells but can make women very ill. Generally speaking, the outlook (prognosis) for women with breast cancer is good. In the United States, for example, nearly 90% of affected women are still alive five years after their diagnosis.
Because there are several types of cells in the milk ducts and glands, there are several subtypes of breast cancer. Luminal tumors, for example, begin in the cells that line the ducts and glands and usually grow slowly; basal-type tumors arise in deeper layers of the ducts and glands and tend to grow quickly. Clinicians need to distinguish between different breast cancer subtypes so that they can give women a realistic prognosis and can give adjuvant treatments to those women who are most likely to benefit. One way to distinguish between different subtypes is to stain breast cancer samples using antibodies (immune system proteins) that recognize particular proteins (antigens). This “immunohistochemical” approach can identify several breast cancer subtypes but its prognostic value and the best way to classify breast tumors remains unclear. In this study, the researchers investigate the survival over time of women with six major subtypes of breast cancer classified using five immunohistochemical markers: the estrogen receptor and the progesterone receptor (two hormone receptors expressed by luminal cells), the human epidermal growth factors receptor-2 (HER2, a protein marker used to select specific adjuvant therapies), and CK5/6 and EGFR (proteins expressed by basal cells).
The researchers pooled data on survival time and on the expression of the five immunohistochemical markers from more than 10,000 cases of breast cancer from 12 studies. They then divided the tumors into six subtypes on the basis of their marker expression: luminal (hormone receptor-positive), HER2-positive tumors; luminal, HER2-negative, basal marker-positive tumors; luminal, HER2-negative, basal marker-negative tumors; nonluminal (hormone receptor-negative), HER2-positive tumors; nonluminal, HER2-negative, basal marker-positive tumors; and nonluminal, HER2-negative, basal marker-negative tumors. In the first five years after diagnosis, women with nonluminal tumor subtypes had the worst prognosis but at 15 years after diagnosis, women with luminal HER2-positive tumors had the worst prognosis. Furthermore, death rates (the percentage of affected women dying each year) differed by subtype over time. Thus, women with the two luminal HER2-negative subtypes were as likely to die soon after diagnosis as at later times whereas the death rates associated with nonluminal subtypes peaked within five years of diagnosis and then declined.
These and other findings indicate that the six subtypes of breast cancer defined by the expression of five immunohistochemical markers have distinct biological characteristics that are associated with important differences in short-term and long-term outcomes. Because different laboratories measured the immunohistochemical markers using different methods, it is possible that some of the tumors included in this study were misclassified. However, the finding of clear differences in the behavior of the immunochemically classified subtypes suggests that the use of the five markers for tumor classification might be robust enough for routine clinical practice. The application of these markers in the clinical setting, suggest the researchers, could improve the targeting of adjuvant therapies to those women most likely to benefit. Furthermore, note the researchers, these findings strongly suggest that subtype-specific responses should be evaluated in future clinical trials of treatments for breast cancer.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000279.
This study is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Stefan Ambs
The US National Cancer Institute provides detailed information for patients and health professionals on all aspects of breast cancer (in English and Spanish)
The American Cancer Society has a detailed guide to breast cancer, which includes information on the immunochemical classification of breast cancer subtypes