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BACKGROUND: The overexpression or amplification of tumor suppressor and proto-oncogenes are important factors in the progression of breast cancer. Recent attention has focused on the cyclin genes, whose involvement in signal transduction pathways regulate cell cycle progression. The amplification of the cyclins D1 and D3 genes usually leads to loss of normal growth control and is thought to play an important growth regulatory role in tumor development and progression. In this report, we investigate the association of altered cyclin expression with other prognostic indicators (histological grade, lymph node status, estrogen receptor, p53, and c-erbB-2) in the progression of human breast cancer. MATERIALS AND METHODS: Surgical tumor specimens were obtained from 16 breast tubular ductal, and invasive ductal carcinomas and grafted onto gnotobiotic nude (nu/nu) mice. The expression diversity and distribution of the localization of the protein products of the c-erbB-2, cyclins D1 and D3, p53, and estrogen receptor were characterized immunohistochemically and the results in the original tumor (T0) were compared with those in the tumors that developed in nude mice (T1) xenografts. RESULTS: The T0 tumors exhibited a diversity of cellular morphology in the tumor matrix and diversity in expression of these proteins. These specific changes were also preserved in the T1 tumors. Whereas 67% of the T1 tumors exhibited high numbers of estrogen receptorpositive nuclei, only 50% of these tumors grew when grafted onto nude mice. The histological grade (14/15 were G2 to G3) and metastatic malignancy in the lymph nodes (10/15) did not appear to be related to tumor growth in the nude mouse. There was no relationship between those tumors which exhibited high percentages of c-erbB-2- and p53-positive cells and growth in nude mice. A strong association (p < 0.001) was observed between the overexpression of cyclin D1 transcripts in the T0 tumors and the continued growth of the T1 tumors in nude mice. In the T1 tumors, both cyclins D1 and D3, estrogen receptor, and p53 were observed in 49% to 86% of the cells of the T1 tumors examined; the number of cells expressing c-erbB-2 protein varied widely in these tumors. CONCLUSIONS: The results indicate that the tumor matrix exhibits a diversity in the level of phenotypic expression of genes involved in cellular growth of breast tumors in both the T0 or T1 host environment. Changes in cyclin activity appear to correlate with the vigorous level of breast tumor growth and progression.