Jen Jen Yeh and colleagues developed and validated a six-gene signature in patients with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma that may be used to better stage the disease in these patients and assist in treatment decisions.
Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) remains a lethal disease. For patients with localized PDAC, surgery is the best option, but with a median survival of less than 2 years and a difficult and prolonged postoperative course for most, there is an urgent need to better identify patients who have the most aggressive disease.
Methods and Findings
We analyzed the gene expression profiles of primary tumors from patients with localized compared to metastatic disease and identified a six-gene signature associated with metastatic disease. We evaluated the prognostic potential of this signature in a training set of 34 patients with localized and resected PDAC and selected a cut-point associated with outcome using X-tile. We then applied this cut-point to an independent test set of 67 patients with localized and resected PDAC and found that our signature was independently predictive of survival and superior to established clinical prognostic factors such as grade, tumor size, and nodal status, with a hazard ratio of 4.1 (95% confidence interval [CI] 1.7–10.0). Patients defined to be high-risk patients by the six-gene signature had a 1-year survival rate of 55% compared to 91% in the low-risk group.
Our six-gene signature may be used to better stage PDAC patients and assist in the difficult treatment decisions of surgery and to select patients whose tumor biology may benefit most from neoadjuvant therapy. The use of this six-gene signature should be investigated in prospective patient cohorts, and if confirmed, in future PDAC clinical trials, its potential as a biomarker should be investigated. Genes in this signature, or the pathways that they fall into, may represent new therapeutic targets.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Pancreatic cancer kills nearly a quarter of a million people every year. It begins when a cell in the pancreas (an organ lying behind the stomach that produces digestive enzymes and hormones such as insulin, which controls blood sugar levels) acquires genetic changes that allow it to grow uncontrollably and to spread around the body (metastasize). Nearly all pancreatic cancers are “pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomas” (PDACs)—tumors that start in the cells that line the tubes in the pancreas that take digestive juices to the gut. Because PDAC rarely causes any symptoms early in its development, it has already metastasized in about half of patients before it is diagnosed. Consequently, the average survival time after a diagnosis of PDAC is only 5–8 months. At present, the only chance for cure is surgical removal (resection) of the tumor, part of the pancreas, and other nearby digestive organs. The operation that is needed for the majority of patients—the Whipple procedure—is only possible in the fifth of patients whose tumor is found when it is small enough to be resectable but even with postoperative chemotherapy, these patients only live for 23 months after surgery on average, possibly because they have micrometastases at the time of their operation.
Why Was This Study Done?
Despite this poor overall outcome, about a quarter of patients with resectable PDAC survive for more than 5 years after surgery. Might some patients, therefore, have a less aggressive form of PDAC determined by the biology of the primary (original) tumor? If this is the case, it would be useful to be able to stratify patients according to the aggressiveness of their disease so that patients with very aggressive disease could be given chemotherapy before surgery (neoadjuvant therapy) to kill any micrometastases. At present neoadjuvant therapy is given to patients with locally advanced, unresectable tumors. In this study, the researchers compare gene expression patterns in primary tumor samples collected from patients with localized PDAC and from patients with metastatic PDAC between 1999 and 2007 to try to identify molecular markers that distinguish between more and less aggressive PDACs.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified a six-gene signature that was associated with metastatic disease using a molecular biology approach called microarray hybridization and a statistical method called significance analysis of microarrays to analyze gene expression patterns in primary tumor samples from 15 patients with localized PDAC and 15 patients with metastatic disease. Next, they used a training set of tumor samples from another 34 patients with localized and resected PDAC, microarray hybridization, and a graphical method called X-tile to select a combination of expression levels of the six genes that discriminated optimally between high-risk (aggressive) and low-risk (less aggressive) tumors on the basis of patient survival (a “cut-point”). When the researchers applied this cut-point to an independent set of 67 tumor samples from patients with localized and resected PDAC, they found that 42 patients had high-risk tumors. These patients had an average survival time of 15 months; 55% of them were alive a year after surgery. The remaining 25 patients, who had low-risk tumors, had an average survival time of 49 months and 91% of them were alive a year after resection.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These and other findings identify a six-gene signature that can predict outcomes in patients with localized, resectable PDAC better than, and independently of, established clinical markers of outcome. If the predictive ability of this signature can be confirmed in additional patients, it could be used to help patients make decisions about their treatment. For example, a patient wondering whether to risk the Whipple procedure (2%–6% of patients die during this operation and more than 50% have serious postoperative complications), the knowledge that their tumor was low risk might help them decide to have the operation. Conversely, a patient in poor health with a high-risk tumor might decide to spare themselves the trauma of major surgery. The six-gene signature might also help clinicians decide which patients would benefit most from neoadjuvant therapy. Finally, the genes in this signature, or the biological pathways in which they participate, might represent new therapeutic targets for the treatment of PDAC.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000307.
The US National Cancer Institute provides information for patients and health professionals about all aspects of pancreatic cancer (in English and Spanish), including a booklet for patients
The American Cancer Society also provides detailed information about pancreatic cancer
The UK National Health Service and Cancer Research UK include information for patients on pancreatic cancer on their Web sites
MedlinePlus provides links to further resources on pancreatic cancer (in English and Spanish)
Cure Pancreatic Cancer provides information about scientific and medical research related to the diagnosis, treatment, cure, and prevention of pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is a US organization that supports research, patient support, community outreach, and advocacy for a cure for pancreatic cancer