Urokinase-type plasminogen activator (uPA), its receptor (uPAR) and its inhibitor PAI-1, play a key role in tumor invasion and metastasis. uPA and PAI-1 were the first novel tumor biological factors to be validated at the highest level of evidence regarding their clinical utility in breast cancer. Their antigens are determined in tumor tissue extracts by standardized, quality-assured immunometric assays (ELISA). Since the late 1980s, numerous independent studies have demonstrated that patients with low levels of uPA- and PAI-1 in their primary tumor tissue have significantly better survival than patients with high levels of either factor. However, it is unclear whether it is their (relative) levels in the tumor stroma or in the tumor cells themselves that is most relevant to patient outcome. This missing knowledge leads to an uncertainty concerning the management of breast cancer tissue specimens. It is unclear how much tumor stroma is allowed in one tumor tissue specimen for an adequate assessment of the patients' outcome. This is the first study in which tumor cells and stromal tissue of invasive breast carcinomas (n=60) were separated by laser capture microdissection followed by ELISA-based determination of the uPA-, uPAR- and PAI-1-levels. In addition, we have assessed uPA-, uPAR- and PAI-1 distribution in formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded breast cancer specimens (n=60) by immunohistochemistry. The uPA-, uPAR- and PAI-1 in tumor stroma only, tumor cells only and not separated tumor tissue did not show any significant differences in protein-levels determined by ELISA. Cox regression analysis showed that patients with high uPA-, high uPAR-, and/or high PAI-1-levels, as compared to patients with low levels of either factor, showed a significantly shorter relapse-free survival and overall survival (p=0.000001). These results suggest that a strong expression of uPA, uPAR and PAI-1 in the tumor stroma, as well as in tumor cells, have the same impact on the clinical behaviour of breast cancer.
Conclusion: When using uPA- and PAI-1 levels as prognostic and predictive factors in breast cancer the quantity of tumor stroma in the tumor tissue specimen is not relevant for the assessment of the patients' outcome.