Clonal evolution in primary breast cancers under sequential epirubicin and docetaxel monotherapy

Genome Med. 2022 Aug 11;14(1):86. doi: 10.1186/s13073-022-01090-2.


Background: Subclonal evolution during primary breast cancer treatment is largely unexplored. We aimed to assess the dynamic changes in subclonal composition of treatment-naïve breast cancers during neoadjuvant chemotherapy.

Methods: We performed whole exome sequencing of tumor biopsies collected before, at therapy switch, and after treatment with sequential epirubicin and docetaxel monotherapy in 51 out of 109 patients with primary breast cancer, who were included in a prospectively registered, neoadjuvant single-arm phase II trial.

Results: There was a profound and differential redistribution of subclones during epirubicin and docetaxel treatment, regardless of therapy response. While truncal mutations and main subclones persisted, smaller subclones frequently appeared or disappeared. Reassessment of raw data, beyond formal mutation calling, indicated that the majority of subclones seemingly appearing during treatment were in fact present in pretreatment breast cancers, below conventional detection limits. Likewise, subclones which seemingly disappeared were still present, below detection limits, in most cases where tumor tissue remained. Tumor mutational burden (TMB) dropped during neoadjuvant therapy, and copy number analysis demonstrated specific genomic regions to be systematically lost or gained for each of the two chemotherapeutics.

Conclusions: Sequential epirubicin and docetaxel monotherapy caused profound redistribution of smaller subclones in primary breast cancer, while early truncal mutations and major subclones generally persisted through treatment.

Trial registration:, NCT00496795 , registered on July 4, 2007.

Keywords: Breast cancer; Chemoresistance; Clonal evolution; Neoadjuvant chemotherapy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols / therapeutic use
  • Breast Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Breast Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Breast Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Clonal Evolution
  • Cyclophosphamide
  • Docetaxel / therapeutic use
  • Epirubicin
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Neoadjuvant Therapy
  • Taxoids / adverse effects
  • Taxoids / therapeutic use


  • Taxoids
  • Docetaxel
  • Epirubicin
  • Cyclophosphamide

Associated data