David Mangelsdorf and colleagues show that nuclear receptor expression is strongly associated with clinical outcomes of lung cancer patients, and this expression profile is a potential prognostic signature for lung cancer patient survival time, particularly for individuals with early stage disease.
The identification of prognostic tumor biomarkers that also would have potential as therapeutic targets, particularly in patients with early stage disease, has been a long sought-after goal in the management and treatment of lung cancer. The nuclear receptor (NR) superfamily, which is composed of 48 transcription factors that govern complex physiologic and pathophysiologic processes, could represent a unique subset of these biomarkers. In fact, many members of this family are the targets of already identified selective receptor modulators, providing a direct link between individual tumor NR quantitation and selection of therapy. The goal of this study, which begins this overall strategy, was to investigate the association between mRNA expression of the NR superfamily and the clinical outcome for patients with lung cancer, and to test whether a tumor NR gene signature provided useful information (over available clinical data) for patients with lung cancer.
Methods and Findings
Using quantitative real-time PCR to study NR expression in 30 microdissected non-small-cell lung cancers (NSCLCs) and their pair-matched normal lung epithelium, we found great variability in NR expression among patients' tumor and non-involved lung epithelium, found a strong association between NR expression and clinical outcome, and identified an NR gene signature from both normal and tumor tissues that predicted patient survival time and disease recurrence. The NR signature derived from the initial 30 NSCLC samples was validated in two independent microarray datasets derived from 442 and 117 resected lung adenocarcinomas. The NR gene signature was also validated in 130 squamous cell carcinomas. The prognostic signature in tumors could be distilled to expression of two NRs, short heterodimer partner and progesterone receptor, as single gene predictors of NSCLC patient survival time, including for patients with stage I disease. Of equal interest, the studies of microdissected histologically normal epithelium and matched tumors identified expression in normal (but not tumor) epithelium of NGFIB3 and mineralocorticoid receptor as single gene predictors of good prognosis.
NR expression is strongly associated with clinical outcomes for patients with lung cancer, and this expression profile provides a unique prognostic signature for lung cancer patient survival time, particularly for those with early stage disease. This study highlights the potential use of NRs as a rational set of therapeutically tractable genes as theragnostic biomarkers, and specifically identifies short heterodimer partner and progesterone receptor in tumors, and NGFIB3 and MR in non-neoplastic lung epithelium, for future detailed translational study in lung cancer.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Lung cancer, the most common cause of cancer-related death, kills 1.3 million people annually. Most lung cancers are “non-small-cell lung cancers” (NSCLCs), and most are caused by smoking. Exposure to chemicals in smoke causes changes in the genes of the cells lining the lungs that allow the cells to grow uncontrollably and to move around the body. How NSCLC is treated and responds to treatment depends on its “stage.” Stage I tumors, which are small and confined to the lung, are removed surgically, although chemotherapy is also sometimes given. Stage II tumors have spread to nearby lymph nodes and are treated with surgery and chemotherapy, as are some stage III tumors. However, because cancer cells in stage III tumors can be present throughout the chest, surgery is not always possible. For such cases, and for stage IV NSCLC, where the tumor has spread around the body, patients are treated with chemotherapy alone. About 70% of patients with stage I and II NSCLC but only 2% of patients with stage IV NSCLC survive for five years after diagnosis; more than 50% of patients have stage IV NSCLC at diagnosis.
Why Was This Study Done?
Patient responses to treatment vary considerably. Oncologists (doctors who treat cancer) would like to know which patients have a good prognosis (are likely to do well) to help them individualize their treatment. Consequently, the search is on for “prognostic tumor biomarkers,” molecules made by cancer cells that can be used to predict likely clinical outcomes. Such biomarkers, which may also be potential therapeutic targets, can be identified by analyzing the overall pattern of gene expression in a panel of tumors using a technique called microarray analysis and looking for associations between the expression of sets of genes and clinical outcomes. In this study, the researchers take a more directed approach to identifying prognostic biomarkers by investigating the association between the expression of the genes encoding nuclear receptors (NRs) and clinical outcome in patients with lung cancer. The NR superfamily contains 48 transcription factors (proteins that control the expression of other genes) that respond to several hormones and to diet-derived fats. NRs control many biological processes and are targets for several successful drugs, including some used to treat cancer.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers analyzed the expression of NR mRNAs using “quantitative real-time PCR” in 30 microdissected NSCLCs and in matched normal lung tissue samples (mRNA is the blueprint for protein production). They then used an approach called standard classification and regression tree analysis to build a prognostic model for NSCLC based on the expression data. This model predicted both survival time and disease recurrence among the patients from whom the tumors had been taken. The researchers validated their prognostic model in two large independent lung adenocarcinoma microarray datasets and in a squamous cell carcinoma dataset (adenocarcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas are two major NSCLC subtypes). Finally, they explored the roles of specific NRs in the prediction model. This analysis revealed that the ability of the NR signature in tumors to predict outcomes was mainly due to the expression of two NRs—the short heterodimer partner (SHP) and the progesterone receptor (PR). Expression of either gene could be used as a single gene predictor of the survival time of patients, including those with stage I disease. Similarly, the expression of either nerve growth factor induced gene B3 (NGFIB3) or mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) in normal tissue was a single gene predictor of a good prognosis.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that the expression of NR mRNA is strongly associated with clinical outcomes in patients with NSCLC. Furthermore, they identify a prognostic NR expression signature that provides information on the survival time of patients, including those with early stage disease. The signature needs to be confirmed in more patients before it can be used clinically, and researchers would like to establish whether changes in mRNA expression are reflected in changes in protein expression if NRs are to be targeted therapeutically. Nevertheless, these findings highlight the potential use of NRs as prognostic tumor biomarkers. Furthermore, they identify SHP and PR in tumors and two NRs in normal lung tissue as molecules that might provide new targets for the treatment of lung cancer and new insights into the early diagnosis, pathogenesis, and chemoprevention of lung cancer.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000378.
The Nuclear Receptor Signaling Atlas (NURSA) is consortium of scientists sponsored by the US National Institutes of Health that provides scientific reagents, datasets, and educational material on nuclear receptors and their co-regulators to the scientific community through a Web-based portal
The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) provides information and resources to anyone interested in the prevention and treatment of lung and other cancers
The US National Cancer Institute provides detailed information for patients and professionals about all aspects of lung cancer, including information on non-small-cell carcinoma and on tumor markers (in English and Spanish)
Cancer Research UK also provides information about lung cancer and information on how cancer starts
MedlinePlus has links to other resources about lung cancer (in English and Spanish)
Wikipedia has a page on nuclear receptors (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)