A novel flow cytometric steroid hormone receptor assay for paraffin-embedded breast carcinomas: an objective quantification of the steroid hormone receptors and direct correlation to ploidy status and proliferative capacity in a single-tube assay

Hum Pathol. 2000 May;31(5):584-92. doi: 10.1053/hp.2000.6700.


Semiquantitative estimation of steroid hormone receptors by immunohistochemistry applied to paraffin sections is common practice in surgical pathology. Flow cytometric (FCM) analysis of estrogen receptor (ER) and progesterone receptor (PR) levels provides a faster and more objective quantitative assay. However, a major problem in such FCM analyses of solid tumor samples is the admixture of tumor cells with normal epithelial, stromal, and inflammatory cells. The aim of the underlying study was to investigate the applicability of a recently developed multiparameter flow cytometric methodology for the accurate estimation of the fraction of steroid hormone receptor-positive tumor cells and to explore whether this multiparameter approach allows the detection of specific, clinically relevant subsets of tumors, based on a combination of ploidy level, steroid hormone receptor status, and cell cycle characteristics. For this purpose, samples of 42 breast cancer patients, from which routine immunohistochemistry for ER and PR also was available, were analyzed. From each case, a cell suspension was prepared from the paraffin block by applying a heating and short pepsin digestion step to 50-microm-thick sections. These cell suspensions were double-immunostained for cytokeratin to identify the epithelial cells, and ER or PR, whereas DNA was quantitatively stained with propidium iodide using an optimized protocol. In the entire group of breast tumors, the percentages of ER- and PR-positive cells were registered in the epithelial subfraction, in combination with DNA ploidy and S phase fraction (SPF). A significant correlation was found between the fraction of hormone receptor-positive cells as found by the immunohistochemical and FCM procedures. For ER, a correlation coefficient of r = .87 was found, and for PR r = .62, both P < .0001. It became clear that all the diploid breast tumors had more than 30% tumor cells positive for ER with a SPF lower than 10%, whereas aneuploid tumors contained on average a smaller percentage of steroid hormone receptor-positive cells, and simultaneously an SPF greater than 10%. Our results show that this multiparameter FCM analysis allows an objective and reproducible quantification of the fraction of steroid hormone receptor-positive cells in the relevant epithelial cell compartment in relation to DNA ploidy status and proliferative capacity in a single-tube assay.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / chemistry*
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Cell Division
  • Female
  • Flow Cytometry / methods*
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Paraffin Embedding
  • Ploidies
  • Receptors, Estrogen / analysis*
  • Receptors, Progesterone / analysis*


  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Receptors, Progesterone