The molecular pathology of hereditary breast cancer: genetic testing and therapeutic implications

Mod Pathol. 2005 Oct;18(10):1305-20. doi: 10.1038/modpathol.3800453.


Cancer arising in carriers of mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes differs from sporadic breast cancer of age-matched controls and from non-BRCA1/2 familial breast carcinomas in its morphological, immunophenotypic and molecular characteristics. Most BRCA1 carcinomas have the basal cell phenotype, a subtype of high-grade, highly proliferating, estrogen receptor- and HER2-negative breast carcinomas, characterized by the expression of basal or myoepithelial markers such as basal keratins, P-cadherin, epidermal growth factor receptor, etc. This phenotype is rarely found in BRCA2 carcinomas, which are of higher grade than sporadic age-matched controls, but tend to be estrogen receptor- and progesterone receptor-positive. The expression of the cell-cycle proteins cyclins A, B1 and E and SKP2 is associated with a BRCA1 phenotype, whereas cyclin D1 and p27 expression is associated with BRCA2 carcinomas. Recent studies have shown that hereditary carcinomas that are not attributable to BRCA1/2 mutations have phenotypic similarities to BRCA2 tumors, but tend to be of lower grade and proliferation index. Somatic mutations in the BRCA genes are rarely found in hereditary tumors; by contrast, BRCA1 and BRCA2 loss of heterozygosity (LOH) is found in almost all BRCA1 and BRCA2 carcinomas, respectively. Furthermore, all types of hereditary breast carcinomas have a low frequency of HER2 expression. Finally, comparative genomic hybridization studies have revealed differences in chromosomal gains and losses between genotypes. The pathological and molecular features of hereditary breast cancer can drive specific treatments and influence the process of mutation screening. In addition, detecting molecular changes such as BRCA1/2 LOH in nonatypical cells obtained by random fine-needle aspiration, ductal lavage or nipple aspirate fluid may help to earlier identify carrier women who are at an even higher risk of developing breast carcinoma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • BRCA1 Protein / genetics
  • BRCA1 Protein / metabolism
  • BRCA2 Protein / genetics
  • BRCA2 Protein / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Breast Neoplasms / therapy
  • Female
  • Genetic Testing*
  • Heterozygote
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Mutation


  • BRCA1 Protein
  • BRCA2 Protein