Although it has long been appreciated that ovarian carcinoma subtypes (serous, clear cell, endometrioid, and mucinous) are associated with different natural histories, most ovarian carcinoma biomarker studies and current treatment protocols for women with this disease are not subtype specific. With the emergence of high-throughput molecular techniques, distinct pathogenetic pathways have been identified in these subtypes. We examined variation in biomarker expression rates between subtypes, and how this influences correlations between biomarker expression and stage at diagnosis or prognosis.
Methods and Findings
In this retrospective study we assessed the protein expression of 21 candidate tissue-based biomarkers (CA125, CRABP-II, EpCam, ER, F-Spondin, HE4, IGF2, K-Cadherin, Ki-67, KISS1, Matriptase, Mesothelin, MIF, MMP7, p21, p53, PAX8, PR, SLPI, TROP2, WT1) in a population-based cohort of 500 ovarian carcinomas that was collected over the period from 1984 to 2000. The expression of 20 of the 21 biomarkers differs significantly between subtypes, but does not vary across stage within each subtype. Survival analyses show that nine of the 21 biomarkers are prognostic indicators in the entire cohort but when analyzed by subtype only three remain prognostic indicators in the high-grade serous and none in the clear cell subtype. For example, tumor proliferation, as assessed by Ki-67 staining, varies markedly between different subtypes and is an unfavourable prognostic marker in the entire cohort (risk ratio [RR] 1.7, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.2%–2.4%) but is not of prognostic significance within any subtype. Prognostic associations can even show an inverse correlation within the entire cohort, when compared to a specific subtype. For example, WT1 is more frequently expressed in high-grade serous carcinomas, an aggressive subtype, and is an unfavourable prognostic marker within the entire cohort of ovarian carcinomas (RR 1.7, 95% CI 1.2%–2.3%), but is a favourable prognostic marker within the high-grade serous subtype (RR 0.5, 95% CI 0.3%–0.8%).
The association of biomarker expression with survival varies substantially between subtypes, and can easily be overlooked in whole cohort analyses. To avoid this effect, each subtype within a cohort should be analyzed discretely. Ovarian carcinoma subtypes are different diseases, and these differences should be reflected in clinical research study design and ultimately in the management of ovarian carcinoma.
David Huntsman and colleagues describe the associations between biomarker expression patterns and survival in different ovarian cancer subtypes. They suggest that the management of ovarian cancer should reflect differences between these subtypes.
Every year, about 200,000 women develop ovarian cancer and more than 100,000 die from the disease. Ovarian epithelial cancer (carcinoma) occurs when epithelial cells from the ovary or fallopian tube acquire mutations or equivalent changes that allow them to grow uncontrollably within one of the ovaries (two small organs in the pelvis that produce eggs) and acquire the potential to spread around the body (metastasize). While the cancer is confined to the ovaries, cancer specialists call this stage I disease; 70%–80% of women diagnosed with stage I ovarian cancer survive for at least 5 y. However, only a fifth of ovarian cancers are diagnosed at this stage; in the majority of patients the cancer has spread into the pelvis (stage II disease), into the peritoneal cavity (the space around the gut, stomach, and liver; stage III disease), or metastasized to distant organs such as brain (stage IV disease). This peritoneal spread might be associated with often only vague abdominal pain and mild digestive disturbances. Patients with advanced-stage ovarian carcinoma are treated with a combination of surgery and chemotherapy but, despite recent advances in treatment, only 15% of women diagnosed with stage IV disease survive for 5 y.
Why Was This Study Done?
Although it is usually regarded as a single disease, there are actually several distinct subtypes of ovarian carcinoma. These are classified according to their microscopic appearance as high-grade serous, low-grade serous, clear cell, endometrioid, and mucinous ovarian carcinomas. These subtypes develop differently and respond differently to chemotherapy. Yet scientists studying ovarian carcinoma usually regard this cancer as a single entity, and current treatment protocols for the disease are not subtype specific. Might better progress be made toward understanding ovarian carcinoma and toward improving its treatment if each subtype were treated as a separate disease? Why are some tumors confined to the ovary, whereas the majority spread beyond the ovary at time of diagnosis? In this study, the researchers address these questions by asking whether correlations between the expression of “biomarkers” (molecules made by cancer cells that can be used to detect tumors and to monitor treatment effectiveness) and the stage at diagnosis or length of survival can be explained by differential biomarker expression between different subtypes of ovarian carcinoma. They also address the question of whether early stage and late stage ovarian carcinomas are fundamentally different.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers measured the expression of 21 candidate protein biomarkers in 500 ovarian carcinoma samples collected in British Columbia, Canada, between 1984 and 2000. For 20 of the biomarkers, the fraction of tumors expressing the biomarker varied significantly between ovarian carcinoma subtypes. Considering all the tumors together, ten biomarkers had different expression levels in early and late stage tumors. However, when each subtype was considered separately, the expression of none of the biomarkers varied with stage. When the researchers asked whether the expression of any of the biomarkers correlated with survival times, they found that nine biomarkers were unfavorable indicators of outcome when all the tumors were considered together. That is, women whose tumors expressed any of these biomarkers had a higher risk of dying from ovarian cancer than women whose tumors did not express these biomarkers. However, only three biomarkers were unfavorable indicators for high-grade serous carcinomas considered alone and the expression of a biomarker called WT1 in this subtype of ovarian carcinoma is associated with a lower risk of dying. Similarly, expression of the biomarker Ki-67 was an unfavorable prognostic indicator when all the tumors were considered, but was not a prognostic indicator for any individual subtype.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These and other findings indicate that biomarker expression is more strongly associated with ovarian carcinoma subtype than with stage. In other words, biomarker expression is constant from early to late stage, but only within a given subtype. Second, the association of biomarker expression with survival varies between subtypes, hence lumping all subtypes together can yield misleading results. Although these findings need confirming in more tumor samples, they support the view that ovarian carcinoma subtypes are different diseases. In practical terms, therefore, these findings suggest that better ways to detect and treat ovarian cancer are more likely to be found if future biomarker studies and clinical research studies investigate each subtype of ovarian carcinoma separately rather than grouping them all together.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050232.
The US National Cancer Institute provides a brief description of what cancer is and how it develops and information on all aspects of ovarian cancer for patients and professionals. It also provides a fact sheet on tumor markers (in English and Spanish)
The UK charity Cancerbackup provides general information about cancer and more specific information about ovarian cancer, including tumor staging