Introduction: In breast cancer, gene expression analyses have defined five tumor subtypes (luminal A, luminal B, HER2-enriched, basal-like and claudin-low), each of which has unique biologic and prognostic features. Here, we comprehensively characterize the recently identified claudin-low tumor subtype.
Methods: The clinical, pathological and biological features of claudin-low tumors were compared to the other tumor subtypes using an updated human tumor database and multiple independent data sets. These main features of claudin-low tumors were also evaluated in a panel of breast cancer cell lines and genetically engineered mouse models.
Results: Claudin-low tumors are characterized by the low to absent expression of luminal differentiation markers, high enrichment for epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition markers, immune response genes and cancer stem cell-like features. Clinically, the majority of claudin-low tumors are poor prognosis estrogen receptor (ER)-negative, progesterone receptor (PR)-negative, and epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2)-negative (triple negative) invasive ductal carcinomas with a high frequency of metaplastic and medullary differentiation. They also have a response rate to standard preoperative chemotherapy that is intermediate between that of basal-like and luminal tumors. Interestingly, we show that a group of highly utilized breast cancer cell lines, and several genetically engineered mouse models, express the claudin-low phenotype. Finally, we confirm that a prognostically relevant differentiation hierarchy exists across all breast cancers in which the claudin-low subtype most closely resembles the mammary epithelial stem cell.
Conclusions: These results should help to improve our understanding of the biologic heterogeneity of breast cancer and provide tools for the further evaluation of the unique biology of claudin-low tumors and cell lines.