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J Am Coll Surg. 1998 Jul;187(1):9-16.

Detection of occult breast cancer micrometastases in axillary lymph nodes using a multimarker reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction panel.

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  • 1Department of Surgery, Hollings Cancer Center and Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston 29425, USA.



Axillary lymph node status in breast cancer patients remains the single most important predictor of outcomes. Current methods of histopathologic analysis may be inadequate because 30% of node-negative patients recur. The purpose of this study was to test the hypothesis that a multigene reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) panel provides a more sensitive method to detect axillary lymph node metastases than routine pathologic examination.


Sixty-one consecutive breast cancer patients were evaluated, with nine normal control patients. Nodes > 1 cm were bisected for histopathologic and RT-PCR analysis. Nodal tissue was homogenized, and total RNA was converted into cDNA with reverse transcriptase. Reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction analysis was performed with primers specific for keratin-19, c-myc, prolactin inducible protein (PIP), and beta-actin using ethidium bromide gel electrophoresis. Reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction positive/ pathology negative axillary lymph nodes were reevaluated using step sectioning and immunohistochemical staining.


Thirty-seven patients had pathologically negative axillary lymph nodes, of which 15 (40%) were positive by RT-PCR analysis. Two RT-PCR negative results (one probably from tissue processing error and the other secondary to sampling error) among the 24 histologically positive specimens were detected (8%). The number of patients in each pathologic stage was 26 patients in stage I; 18, stage IIA; 7, stage IIB; 7, stage IIIA; 3, stage IIIB; and 0 patients in stage IV. By RT-PCR staging, 8 of 26 patients went from stage I to IIA (30%), and 7 of 18 from stage IIA to IIB (39%). Of the RT-PCR positive individuals who were stage I by pathologic analysis, 100% were found to be c-myc positive, 0% keratin-19 positive, and 0% PIP positive; for stage IIIB patients these markers were 50%, 100%, and 100% respectively. Additionally, an increasing number of positive markers per specimen appeared to correlate with larger primary tumor size (p < 0.01) and decreased predicted 5-year survival (r = 0.950, p < 0.002).


Multimarker RT-PCR analysis appears to be a readily available and highly sensitive method for the detection of axillary lymph node micrometastases. Longterm followup of RT-PCR positive patients will be required to determine its clinical relevance. If validated as a predictor of disease recurrence, this method would provide a powerful complement to routine histopathologic analysis of axillary lymph nodes.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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