Expression of RANKL in breast cancer tissue in patients with fibrous dysplasia/McCune-Albright syndrome

Bone. 2023 Apr:169:116679. doi: 10.1016/j.bone.2023.116679. Epub 2023 Jan 15.


Background: In fibrous dysplasia/McCune-Albright syndrome (FD/MAS), mosaic mutations in the GNAS gene lead to locally abnormal bone turnover. Additionally, patients with FD/MAS, particularly with thoracic lesions, have an increased risk for breast cancer. Development and progression of breast cancer has been associated with expression of Receptor Activator of NF-κB ligand (RANKL) in mammary tissue, and due to the GNAS mutation, RANKL is systemically increased in patients with FD/MAS. Yet it is unknown whether breast cancer in FD/MAS is also dependent on RANKL. We hypothesized that the GNAS mutation might induce RANKL overproduction and an oncogenic niche in mammary tissue, and examined RANKL expression in breast cancer tissue of patients with FD/MAS compared to controls.

Methods: Nine patients with FD/MAS and breast cancer were included and clinical data were retrieved. Patients were matched to controls with breast cancer without FD/MAS based on age and tumor type. Three pregnant breast cancer patients were included as positive controls. Immunohistochemical detection of RANKL was performed on formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded breast cancer specimens. Staining intensity was classified as weak, moderate or intense. The area of positive RANKL staining divided by the total ductal-lobular area was assessed (positive area percentage, PAP). Number of patients with RANKL expression was compared between FD/MAS and control group by chi-square (χ2) test, the PAP by Mann-Whitney U test (MWU).

Results: RANKL expression was observed in 3 patients with FD/MAS (38 %), mainly in healthy tissue, and none of the control patients (χ2p = 0.055). The FD/MAS group demonstrated considerably more intense staining than the control group, comparable to positive controls. The median PAP was 0.64 % (range 0.14-2.04 %) in the 3 FD/MAS patients with RANKL expression, 0.01 % (Q1-Q3: 0.0003-0.514 %) in the entire FD/MAS group, 0.006 % (Q1-Q3: 0.001-0.012 %) in the control group (MWU = 0.574), and 0.19 % (0.08-0.32 %) in the pregnant patients. All patients with FD/MAS and RANKL expression had thoracic bone lesions, but no correlation was observed between RANKL expression and presence of the GNAS mutation or FD disease burden.

Conclusions: The triad of a higher number of patients, higher positive area percentage and stronger intensity in the FD/MAS compared to the control group indicates that RANKL may be upregulated in mammary tissue in a subset of patients with FD/MAS, which may explain the increased risk for breast cancer, although the clinical significance remains unclear. Further research is needed to establish risk profiles for the development of RANKL-positive breast cancer and to improve early screening and treatment.

Keywords: Breast cancer; Fibrous dysplasia; GNAS; McCune-Albright syndrome; RANKL.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms*
  • Female
  • Fibrous Dysplasia of Bone*
  • Fibrous Dysplasia, Polyostotic*
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Mutation
  • NF-kappa B


  • Ligands
  • NF-kappa B