The origin of vimentin expression in invasive breast cancer: epithelial-mesenchymal transition, myoepithelial histogenesis or histogenesis from progenitor cells with bilinear differentiation potential?

J Pathol. 2005 Aug;206(4):451-7. doi: 10.1002/path.1797.


Vimentin expression is a rather rare finding in invasive breast cancer, and is associated with high tumour invasiveness and chemoresistance. It is currently explained by two different biological theories: direct histogenetic derivation from myoepithelial cells, and epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) reflecting the end-stage of breast cancer dedifferentiation. In this study we aimed to obtain further insights into the biological hallmarks of these vimentin-expressing breast cancers. We applied immunohistochemistry for vimentin and 15 other differentiation markers to a series of 364 invasive breast cancer cases, using tissue microarray technology. 7.7% of all tumours expressed vimentin. Almost all of these cases (19/21) were Grade 3 invasive ductal carcinomas, and the majority (13/21) of these were associated with a ductal in situ component. Vimentin expression was also seen in the respective in situ components and correlated positively with the expression of SMA, CD10, CK 5, p53, Mib-1 and EGFR. A negative correlation was seen for the expression of CK 8/18 and the oestrogen receptor. Vimentin-expressing carcinomas revealed a significantly higher average absolute number of cytogenetic alterations per case, but a significantly lower frequency of chromosome 16q losses compared to vimentin-negative cases. Our present results demonstrate that, despite analogies between vimentin-positive breast cancers and myoepithelial cells in their expression of differentiation-related proteins, neither myoepithelial histogenesis nor EMT can exclusively explain the biology of these distinct tumours. This is mainly supported by the significantly higher incidence of vimentin-expressing breast cancers compared to any other myoepithelial breast tumours and the fact that vimentin is already observed in ductal in situ components. We therefore propose the alternative hypothesis that vimentin-expressing breast carcinomas may derive from breast progenitor cells with bilinear (glandular and myoepithelial) differentiation potential.

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor / analysis
  • Breast Neoplasms / chemistry*
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Ductal, Breast / chemistry
  • Carcinoma, Ductal, Breast / genetics
  • Carcinoma, Ductal, Breast / pathology
  • Chromosomes, Human, Pair 16 / genetics
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Epithelial Cells / chemistry
  • Epithelial Cells / pathology
  • Female
  • Gene Expression / genetics
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry / methods
  • Keratins / analysis
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness
  • Neoplasm Proteins / analysis*
  • Oligonucleotide Array Sequence Analysis / methods
  • Stem Cells / chemistry
  • Stem Cells / pathology
  • Vimentin / analysis*


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Neoplasm Proteins
  • Vimentin
  • Keratins