Background: Receptor activator of NFkB (RANK), its ligand (RANKL) and the decoy receptor of RANKL (osteoprotegerin, OPG) play a pivotal role in bone remodeling by regulating osteoclasts formation and activity. RANKL stimulates migration of RANK-expressing tumor cells in vitro, conversely inhibited by OPG.
Materials and methods: We examined mRNA expression levels of RANKL/RANK/OPG in a publicly available microarray dataset of 295 primary breast cancer patients. We next analyzed RANK expression by immunohistochemistry in an independent series of 93 primary breast cancer specimens and investigated a possible association with clinicopathological parameters, bone recurrence and survival.
Results: Microarray analysis showed that lower RANK and high OPG mRNA levels correlate with longer overall survival (P = 0.0078 and 0.0335, respectively) and disease-free survival (P = 0.059 and 0.0402, respectively). Immunohistochemical analysis of RANK showed a positive correlation with the development of bone metastases (P = 0.023) and a shorter skeletal disease-free survival (SDFS, P = 0.037). Specifically, univariate analysis of survival showed that "RANK-negative" and "RANK-positive" patients had a SDFS of 105.7 months (95% CI: 73.9-124.4) and 58.9 months (95% CI: 34.7-68.5), respectively. RANK protein expression was also associated with accelerated bone metastasis formation in a multivariate analysis (P = 0.029).
Conclusions: This is the first demonstration of the role of RANK expression in primary tumors as a predictive marker of bone metastasis occurrence and SDFS in a large population of breast cancer patients.