Clinical Relevance of Reverse Transcriptase-Polymerase Chain Reaction for the Detection of Axillary Lymph Node Metastases in Breast Cancer

Ann Surg Oncol. 2003 Mar;10(2):117-25. doi: 10.1245/aso.2003.01.010.


Background: The mammary sentinel lymph node procedure can increase the detection of axillary metastases by 45% compared with standard axillary dissection. Some investigators have reported that reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) increases metastasis detection even more, but it is uncertain whether a positive RT-PCR test in the face of a negative histological evaluation is clinically meaningful.

Methods: RT-PCR for epithelial glycoprotein 2 and cytokeratin 19 was performed on sentinel and pooled nonsentinel axillary lymph nodes from 108 women with clinical stage I or II breast cancer who were followed up for a median of 40 months.

Results: Axillary metastases were detected on standard tissue sections in 26% and by RT-PCR in 30%. Results for the two tests were concordant for 80% of the cases. RT-PCR upstaged 16%. Tumors from women whose lymph nodes were positive only by RT-PCR were phenotypically similar to those from women with no metastases detected by any method. Moreover, 4-year actuarial distant disease-free survival was 100% for women with metastases detected by RT-PCR only, as compared with 74% for those with metastases detected by routine histology (P =.03) and 93% for those with no metastases detected by either method (P =.04).

Conclusions: Analysis of sentinel lymph nodes by RT-PCR for epithelial glycoprotein 2 and cytokeratin 19 is unlikely to provide clinically useful information.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Axilla
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Disease-Free Survival
  • Female
  • Glycoproteins / analysis
  • Humans
  • Keratins / analysis
  • Lymph Nodes / pathology
  • Lymphatic Metastasis / diagnosis*
  • Lymphatic Metastasis / pathology
  • Middle Aged
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction*
  • Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy


  • Glycoproteins
  • Keratins