Estrogen receptor splice variants as a potential source of false-positive estrogen receptor status in breast cancer diagnostics.


It is well established that only estrogen receptor (ER)-positive tumors benefit from hormonal therapies. We hypothesized that a subgroup of breast cancer patients expresses estrogen receptor α (ERα), but fails to respond to hormonal therapy due to the expression of a non-functional receptor. We analyzed a series of 2,658 ERα-positive HER2-negative breast tumors for ERα and progesterone receptor (PR) status as determined by mRNA expression and for their molecular subtypes (Luminal type vs Basal type, assessed by BluePrint™ molecular subtyping assay). In addition, we assessed the recurrence risk (low vs high) using the 70-gene MammaPrint™ signature. We found that 55 out of 2,658 (2.1 %) tumors that are ERα positive by mRNA analysis also demonstrate a Basal molecular subtype, indicating that they lack expression of estrogen-responsive genes. These ERα-positive Basal-type tumors express significantly lower levels of both ERα and PR mRNA as compared to Luminal-type tumors (P < 0.0001) and almost invariably (94.5 %) have a high-risk MammaPrint™ profile. Twelve of the MammaPrint™ genes are directly ERα responsive, indicating that MammaPrint™ assesses ERα function in breast cancer without considering ERα mRNA levels. We find a relatively high expression of the dominant negative ERα splice variant ERΔ7 in ERα-positive Basal-type tumors as compared to ERα-positive Luminal-type tumors (P < 0.0001). Expression of the dominant negative ERα variant ERΔ7 provides a rationale as to why tumors are of the Basal molecular subtype while staining ERα positive by immunohistochemistry. These tumors may lack a functional response to estrogen and consequently may not respond to hormonal therapy. Our data indicate that such patients are of MammaPrint™ high recurrence risk and might benefit from adjuvant chemotherapy.

More about this publication

Breast cancer research and treatment
  • Volume 140
  • Issue nr. 3
  • Pages 475-84
  • Publication date 01-08-2013

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