Serial plasma samples from 1006 patients with breast cancer revealed: (i) no correlation of p53 autoantibody status with disease status at the time of sample collection, or with menopausal status at time of primary diagnosis of breast cancer; (ii) 155 out of 1006 (15%) of patients were positive for p53 autoantibodies, and these patients tended to have a persistent autoantibody status throughout follow up, irrespective of disease behaviour; and (iii) where a negative autoantibody status was found at primary diagnosis of breast cancer, this negative status persisted throughout follow up, irrespective of later disease behaviour. We conclude that screening for p53 autoantibody status is not informative on residual tumour activity nor on therapeutic responsiveness.
Dysfunction of the tumour-suppressor protein, p53, may be due to either mutational or epigenetic factors, each of which may lead to accumulation of cytoplasmic p53. Abnormal accumulation of p53 in breast cancer tissue is predictive of poor prognosis [1,2]. Humoral studies [3,4] have shown that cancer patients may develop immunity to abnormally expressed p53, as revealed by p53 autoantibodies in the blood. Again, prognostic correlates have been noted, with presence of circulating p53 autoantibodies at diagnosis of breast cancer being associated with reduced overall survival [5,6] and with poor prognostic factors such as high histological grade and the absence of hormone receptors [5,7,8].
Little is known of the potential value of p53 autoantibody in follow up of cancer. In lung cancer there is evidence that autoantibodies to p53 may provide a useful tool to monitor response to therapy [9,10], whereas serial measurements of autoantibodies to p53 in 40 patients with advanced ovarian cancer were not found to be clinically useful . In breast cancer some 30% of node-negative patients will relapse within 5 years, but there is no current means to predict those who are at risk.
We performed the present study to ask if the presence of autoantibodies to p53 has any association with breast cancer progression.
Materials and method:
A library of plasma samples were collected from all patients attending one general oncology clinic for postoperative follow up of breast cancer. The clinical status of each patient at the time of sampling was summarized. An average of eight plasma samples were cryopreserved for each patient over a period of 15 years.
The enzyme-linked immusorbent assay (ELISA) for p53 autoantibodies was developed in-house, based on the ELISA procedure of Lubin et al . Our in-house method is detailed in the full text of this article. In one assay series we compared a commercial ELISA kit for p53 autoantibodies with our in-house ELISA. A total of 20 patients' samples were tested, representing a range of positive and negative readings. Two samples scored as strongly positive with the in-house assay, but only one of these two scored positive with the commercial assay. Having established sensitivity, specificity and reproducibility of the in-house assay, we judged that this was superior to the commercial assay both in terms of sensitivity and of cost (£1 per test compared with £23 per test). The in-house assay was thus used throughout the present study.
Serial plasma samples from 1006 patients with breast cancer revealed the following: (i) no correlation of p53 autoantibody status with disease status at the time of sample collection (Table 1), or with menopausal status at time of primary diagnosis of breast cancer (Table 2); (ii) 155 out of 1006 (15%) of patients were positive for p53 autoantibodies, and these patients tended to have a persistent autoantibody status throughout follow up, irrespective of disease behaviour; and (iii) where a negative autoantibody status was found at primary diagnosis of breast cancer, this negative status persisted throughout follow up, irrespective of later disease behaviour (Table 3).
As a working hypothesis, we proposed that levels of autoantibodies to p53 would reflect tumour behaviour. However, we found that the presence or absence of p53 autoantibodies was not predictive of presence or absence of recurrent disease. There was an equivalent incidence of active disease at the time of sampling in both the autoantibody-negative and autoantibody-positive groups, these being 25.2 and 28.7%, respectively. Thus, humoral immune activity against p53 appeared to be relatively restricted to a subgroup of patients in whom, once an autoantibody response had been generated, antibody was likely to persist regardless of tumour behaviour. Conversely, where no detectable p53 autoantibody was present at the time of primary diagnosis, these patients remained similarly negative for antibody, irrespective of subsequent disease activity (Table 3).
In contrast to shed markers that correlate with tumour mass, such as CA15.3 for cancer of the breast, any tumour-related immune response will be subject to complex regulation. Autoantibody responses to p53 will require appropriate primary immunization; initial low-dose antigen exposure may induce immune tolerance and lack of response. Higher antigen doses may activate either antibody-mediated immunity, or cellular immunity.
In breast cancer patients, our results suggest that, once an active humoral response against p53 is established, then this remains active. This persistent humoral reaction may be driven by persistent antigenic stimulation by p53 protein derived from overexpression of p53 at distant metastatic sites; alternatively, irradiated normal tissue may be a source of continued antigenic stimulation, because a long-term side effect of radiation therapy is an increased expression of p53 in normal breast tissue that persists for several years . Since the great majority of our total patient cohort had received radiotherapy, humoral immunity to p53 associated with primary disease might persist, even in those patients who enter remission, due to tumour-independent antigenic stimulation.
Loss of p53 function is known to correlate with loss of efficacy of cancer therapy in vivo [13,14]. This raised the possibility that autoantibodies to p53 that develop during follow up might indicate those patients whose tumor has become resistant to therapy. However, the present results show that, if no immunity has been generated at the time of primary diagnosis, then later immunity is unlikely to occur. This corresponds to the finding that expression of p53 antigen in biopies of locally advanced breast cancer did not correlate with drug resistance [15,16]. Overall, the present observations show that screening for p53 autoantibody status is not informative on residual tumour activity, or on therapeutic responsiveness. We conclude that the potential value of p53 autoantibody screening in patients with breast cancer is limited to the prognostic information obtained at diagnosis.