Pathway activity profiling of growth factor receptor network and stemness pathways differentiates metaplastic breast cancer histological subtypes

BMC Cancer. 2019 Sep 5;19(1):881. doi: 10.1186/s12885-019-6052-z.


Background: Gene expression profiling of rare cancers has proven challenging due to limited access to patient materials and requirement of intact, non-degraded RNA for next-generation sequencing. We customized a gene expression panel compatible with degraded RNA from formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded (FFPE) patient cancer samples and investigated its utility in pathway activity profiling in patients with metaplastic breast cancer (MpBC).

Methods: Activity of various biological pathways was profiled in samples from nineteen patients with MpBC and 8 patients with invasive ductal carcinoma with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) phenotype using a custom gene expression-based assay of 345 genes.

Results: MpBC samples of mesenchymal (chondroid and/or osteoid) histology demonstrated increased SNAI1 and BCL2L11 pathway activity compared to samples with non-mesenchymal histology. Additionally, late cornified envelope and keratinization genes were downregulated in MpBC compared to TNBC, and epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) and collagen genes were upregulated in MpBC. Patients with high activity of an invasiveness gene expression signature, as well as high expression of the mesenchymal marker and extracellular matrix glycoprotein gene SPARC, experienced worse outcomes than those with low invasiveness activity and low SPARC expression.

Conclusions: This study demonstrates the utility of gene expression profiling of metaplastic breast cancer FFPE samples with a custom counts-based assay. Gene expression patterns identified by this assay suggest that, although often histologically triple negative, patients with MpBC have distinct pathway activation compared to patients with invasive ductal TNBC. Incorporation of targeted therapies may lead to improved outcome for MpBC patients, especially in those patients expressing increased activity of invasiveness pathways.

Keywords: Gene expression profiling; Invasiveness; Metaplastic breast cancer; NanoString; Survival.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Bcl-2-Like Protein 11 / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Ductal, Breast / genetics*
  • Carcinoma, Ductal, Breast / pathology
  • Cohort Studies
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition / genetics
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Osteonectin / genetics
  • Phenotype
  • Prognosis
  • RNA-Seq / methods
  • Receptors, Growth Factor / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction / genetics*
  • Snail Family Transcription Factors / metabolism
  • Transcriptome / genetics*
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms / pathology


  • BCL2L11 protein, human
  • Bcl-2-Like Protein 11
  • Osteonectin
  • Receptors, Growth Factor
  • SNAI1 protein, human
  • SPARC protein, human
  • Snail Family Transcription Factors