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    Topic review

    Biomarkers for Breast Cancer

    Subjects: Oncology
    View times: 25
    Submitted by: Hsing-Ju Wu


    Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer type and the leading cause of cancer-related mortality in women worldwide. Breast cancer is fairly heterogeneous and reveals six molecular subtypes: luminal A, luminal B, HER2+, basal-like subtype (ER−, PR−, and HER2−), normal breast-like, and claudin-low. Breast cancer screening and early diagnosis play critical roles in improving therapeutic outcomes and prognosis. Mammography is currently the main commercially available detection method for breast cancer; however, it has numerous limitations. Therefore, reliable noninvasive diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers are required. Biomarkers used in cancer range from macromolecules, such as DNA, RNA, and proteins, to whole cells. Biomarkers for cancer risk, diagnosis, proliferation, metastasis, drug resistance, and prognosis have been identified in breast cancer. In addition, there is currently a greater demand for personalized or precise treatments; moreover, the identification of novel biomarkers to further the development of new drugs is urgently needed.

    1. Introduction

    Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer type and the leading cause of cancer-related mortality in women worldwide [1]. It is estimated that there were approximately 2 million new cases and 627,000 breast cancer-related mortalities globally in 2018 [2][3]. Although the five-year relative survival rate for localized breast cancer is relatively high (80–92%), the survival rate dramatically declines to <25% for metastatic breast cancer [4]. Breast cancer is fairly heterogeneous; gene-expression profiling of breast cancer revealed six intrinsic molecular subtypes: luminal A (estrogen receptor (ER)+, progesterone receptor (PR)+, human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2)−, and Ki67−), luminal B (ER+, PR+, HER+/−, and Ki67+), HER2+, basal-like subtype (ER−, PR−, and HER2−), normal breast-like, and claudin-low (low expression of cellular adhesion genes) [5][6][7]. Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) belongs to either the basal-like or claudin-low subtypes [7]. Breast cancer subtypes differ in terms of clinical relevance, patterns of gene expression, selection of therapeutic strategies, responses to treatment, and prognosis [5][8][9]. Therefore, knowledge of the specific breast cancer subtype is important in guiding treatment decisions and predicting prognosis.

    Breast cancer screening and early diagnosis play critical roles in improving therapeutic outcomes, leading to a better prognosis for breast cancer patients [10]. Mammography is currently the main commercially available detection method for breast cancer; however, it has numerous well-known limitations including low sensitivity of 25~59% for detecting cancer in dense breasts, which present commonly in younger women, as well as high rates of false-negatives and false positives, and 1–10% overdiagnosis [11][12][13]. Therefore, the effective management of breast cancer during therapy or early detection depends on the availability of reliable noninvasive diagnostic, prognostic, and predictive biomarkers [14][15]. In addition, an increasing number of patients demand personalized or precise treatments; hence, the identification of novel biomarkers for diagnosis and prognosis and the development of new drugs is urgently required.

    Biomarkers for cancer include substances released from the cancer cells themselves or by other tissues in response to tumors as well as physiological markers that can be visualized using imaging technology or detected by molecular technology [16][17]. Biomarkers are objective and quantifiable evaluations of biological states or diseases that can predict tumor behavior, prognosis, or treatment responses, thus playing an important role in the management of breast cancer [18][19]. They must be validated by human samples to ensure that they reflect the clinical outcome [20][21]. Because tumor cells are highly heterogeneous, a single biomarker might not have sufficient sensitivity and specificity to accurately predict cancer progression and metastasis, and a combination of multiple markers is more appealing.

    With the rapid advancement of molecular signaling pathways and genetic signatures, including immunohistochemistry, next-generation sequencing, and targeted multigene, numerous clinically relevant biomarkers in tissue and/or blood (liquid biopsies) have been reported to aid in determining the risk of metastasis, prognosis, recurrence, treatment guidance, and drug resistance in breast cancer. Some of these have been used clinically [19][22][23][24]. However, they lack specificity and sensitivity. Therefore, the identification of novel and effective biomarkers is urgently required. In addition, there is an emerging development of immunotherapies for breast cancer, and it is important to identify reliable biomarkers for predicting who will benefit from immunotherapies.

    2. Types of Biomarkers

    Biomarkers used in cancer range from macromolecules, such as DNA, genetic mutations, RNA, and proteins to whole cells (Table 1 and Table 2). They can circulate in the blood as circulating mRNA, circulating free DNA, and circulating tumor cells, making liquid biopsies attractive for clinical use [17][25][26]. Two types of biomarkers are used for cancer treatment outcome: prognostic biomarkers are associated with clinical outcome and can inform whether a patient should be treated, and predictive biomarkers to guide a treatment that is effective only in a subtype of breast cancer [27][28][29]. Some biomarkers are already available in clinical practice, whereas some biomarkers have been validated in mouse models or clinical trials.

    Table 1. Biomarkers discovered recently for breast cancer.

    Table 2. Immune cells and other non-cancer cells as the biomarkers for breast cancer.

    Cell Types



    T cells (Tregs)

    better prognosis in lymph node negative, primary breast cancer patients including those with stages I–III.


    CD8 T cells

    were predictive for response to checkpoint inhibitors.


    B cells

    1. better prognosis in lymph node negative, primary breast cancer patients including those with stages I–III, ER- breast cancer, highly proliferating luminal B breast cancer, and

    2. improved outcome in HR+ breast cancer.


    Plasma cells

    better prognosis in ER- breast cancer and highly proliferating luminal B breast cancer.



    1. The frequency of TILs is usually high in the more aggressive breast cancer subtypes. TIL frequency was found to be a superior prognostic marker;

    2. were predictive for response to checkpoint inhibitors,

    3. was associated with improved responses to trastuzumab or lapatinib in HER2+ breast cancer.



    associate with survival in basal-like breast cancer.



    are correlated with poor survival in ER- tumors.



    1. are associated with poor breast cancer survival;

    2. inhibiting leukotriene-generating enzyme arachidonate 5-lipoxygenase (Alox5) abrogates neutrophil pro-metastatic activity and consequently reduces metastasis.


    NK cells

    were found significantly depleted from peripheral blood compared to pretreatment levels after chemotherapy.


    myeloid dendritic cell

    improved outcome in HR+ breast cancer.



    may provide new opportunities for effective anti-metastasis therapies, especially for brain metastasis patients.


    This entry is adapted from 10.3390/ijms22020636


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