Current prognostic gene expression profiles for breast cancer mainly reflect proliferation status and are most useful in ER-positive cancers. Triple negative breast cancers (TNBC) are clinically heterogeneous and prognostic markers and biology-based therapies are needed to better treat this disease.
We assembled Affymetrix gene expression data for 579 TNBC and performed unsupervised analysis to define metagenes that distinguish molecular subsets within TNBC. We used n = 394 cases for discovery and n = 185 cases for validation. Sixteen metagenes emerged that identified basal-like, apocrine and claudin-low molecular subtypes, or reflected various non-neoplastic cell populations, including immune cells, blood, adipocytes, stroma, angiogenesis and inflammation within the cancer. The expressions of these metagenes were correlated with survival and multivariate analysis was performed, including routine clinical and pathological variables.
Seventy-three percent of TNBC displayed basal-like molecular subtype that correlated with high histological grade and younger age. Survival of basal-like TNBC was not different from non basal-like TNBC. High expression of immune cell metagenes was associated with good and high expression of inflammation and angiogenesis-related metagenes were associated with poor prognosis. A ratio of high B-cell and low IL-8 metagenes identified 32% of TNBC with good prognosis (hazard ratio (HR) 0.37, 95% CI 0.22 to 0.61; P < 0.001) and was the only significant predictor in multivariate analysis including routine clinicopathological variables.