Tumour heterogeneity: principles and practical consequences
Axillary lymph node status is one of the most important prognostic variables for breast cancer (BC). To investigate and understand the clinical, histopathological and biological factors that affect prognosis in node-positive young breast cancer patients, we compared the phenotype of 100 primary tumours with their corresponding loco-regional lymph node (LN) metastases using conventional immunohistochemistry (IHC) markers currently in use for molecular classification of breast cancer. By comparing the expression of ER, PR, HER-2, Ki67, K8, K5/6 and vimentin, we found that expression of HER-2, Ki67, K8 and vimentin is frequently lost in lymph node metastases. Between the primary tumour and corresponding lymph node metastases, expression of keratins K8 and K5/6 significantly changed. Expression of K8 in lymph node metastases, but not in primary tumours, segregates patients in two sub-groups with different outcomes. Survival of patients with K8-positive LN metastases at 5 years in comparison with patients with K8-negative LN metastases was 75 vs 48 %, at 10 years 62 vs 22 % and at 20 years 53 vs 14 % (p < 0.001). K8 immunostaining of tissue from the lymph node metastasis allows defining a sub-group of lymph node-positive BC patients with a highly unfavourable outcome, for whom therapeutic options might have to be reconsidered.