New Frontiers in Breast Pathology
Moderator: Dr. Sunil Lakhani
Section 1 -
Gene Expression Profiling from Paraffin-embedded Samples
Director of Breast Pathology, Massachusetts General Hospital
Associate Professor of Pathology, Harvard Medical School
Histopathological criteria, along with clinical staging, have been the primary approaches to defining
prognosis in patients newly diagnosed with breast cancer. However, these markers provide not only
imperfect predictors of the indication for adjuvant therapy, but also poor predictors of the risk of
early relapse in the setting of adjuvant therapy. Contemporary advances in microarray-based gene
expression profile analysis are likely to revolutionize the classification of breast cancer, providing a
comprehensive analysis of all expressed genes, leading to sophisticated markers of tumor biology and
clinical behavior. Recently, the use of such technologies has resulted in the discovery of a gene
expression signature that outperformed all currently used clinicopathological parameters in predicting
disease outcome in women with breast cancer. These results suggest for the first time that the analysis
of breast cancer gene expression may become a clinical reality that may eventually guide the clinical
The application of high-throughput DNA microarray technologies to the analysis of clinical breast
cancer specimens holds great promise in producing substantial advances in our understanding of the
biological and clinical behavior of human breast cancer. Several exciting studies in a small number of
human cancer types have demonstrated the powerful utility of gene expression technologies in identifying
clinically relevant prognostic categories
The most clinically useful data will come from analysis
of patient cohorts treated in a uniform fashion, allowing specific correlation of microarray results with
outcomes following particular chemotherapeutic interventions. In addition, ideal studies will require
correlation of expression profiles with long-term disease-free and overall survival.
The current application of gene expression technologies to clinical samples is limited to RNA derived
from fresh tissue or cells, or from archival fresh frozen tissues. Given this technical limitation and
the fact that large archival frozen tissue repositories with long term clinical outcome data are scarce
worldwide, the rapid and widespread use of gene expression profiling technologies to address many
clinically and biologically relevant issues in human breast cancer has been significantly hampered. One
potential solution to this problem is the use of formalin fixed, paraffin-embedded (FFPE) resected
breast tissue samples. FFPE resected breast tissues have been collected worldwide throughout decades of
routine histopathological examination and are a potentially invaluable resource for investigative gene
expression profile studies. Given the wide availability of FFPE breast tissue blocks along with linked
long-term clinical follow-up data, clinical and biological paradigms can be rapidly studied
retrospectively. Therefore, the use of FFPE breast cancer tissues corresponding to well-defined clinical
cohorts with long term follow-up data provides a major leap in our ability to expedite the comprehensive
evaluation of gene expression technologies in the clinical setting of breast cancer treatment.
Although previous studies have demonstrated that nuclei acids can be retrieved from FFPE tissue
demonstration of reliable quantitation of gene expression from such specimens has been
limited to the use of real-time quantitative Taqman reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction
technologies . Through the use of the highly specific and accurate method of RTQ-PCR,
Specht et al.  demonstrated no significant difference in gene expression levels when using frozen
tissue and FFPE samples derived from the identical tissue source. Importantly, this group also
demonstrated that delayed formalin fixation of liver, an RNase rich tissue, did not alter transcript
levels of 7 genes with half-lives ranging from 2-10 hours. Furthermore, they reported the successful
extraction and analysis of RNA from FFPE samples of greater than 20 years of age. In light of the
observations by Specht et al, and the obvious clinical and scientific advantages afforded by the use of
large FFPE breast tissue repositories, we sought to determine the feasibility of generating reliable gene
expression profiles using RNA derived from FFPE clinical breast tissue samples. First, we sought to
determine if global gene expression patterns generated with RNA derived from FFPE tissues is consistently
reproducible, and second we sought to assess RNA quality of FFPE breast cancer tissue blocks that have
been generated and stored, over a 10 year period, using standard anatomical pathology techniques.
Using specimen-matched frozen and FFPE clinical breast tissues obtained from the Massachusetts General
Hospital (MGH) department of pathology, we laser capture microdissected ~2,500 malignant invasive
breast carcinoma cells from the frozen and FFPE specimens as described, respectively . The RNA was
extracted using a modified version of the previously described protocol , then subjected to two rounds
of T7-based linear RNA amplification using the RiboAmp™ kit (Arcturus)
as described . Given potential
variations in fixation time of clinical breast tissue specimens, we sought to determine the effect of
formalin fixation time on our ability to extract and amplify RNA from FFPE tissues. As seen in Fig 1,
RNA can be consistently and reproducibly, extracted and amplified from specimen-matched tissue that has
been fixed in 10% neutral buffer formalin for up to 8 days. We and others have demonstrated that gene
expression profile data generated with amplified RNA (aRNA) derived from duplicate microdissected frozen
tissue samples is highly reproducible and lacks significant representational bias as judged by microarray
and real-time quantitative PCR validation studies. Given this success with frozen tissue, we sought to
extend these technologies to FFPE tissues and determine the reproducibility of array data generated with
aRNA derived from such tissues. RNA amplicons derived from FFPE tissues consistently average 250bps,
whereas RNA amplicons derived from frozen tissues consistently average 500bps (Fig 1); the length of the
RNA derived from our FFPE samples is consistent with that observed by others .
Figure 1. Formalin Fixation Time Course. Formaldehyde RNA gel of aRNA from frozen tissue (lane 6) and
from FFPE tissue fixed for 1 day (lanes 1&2), 4 days (lane 3) and 8 days (lane 4&5). Far left is
Importantly, gene expression data generated using aRNA derived from duplicate
microdissected FFPE tissue samples is as reproducible as that produced using aRNA derived from duplicate
frozen tissue samples (Fig 2). The correlation coefficient (r) of microarray data generated from
multiple pairs of duplicate microdissected FFPE samples is consistently above 0.93.
Figure 2. Scatter plots of microarray data for duplicate hybridations of
amplified RNA from three different FFPE breast samples to an Affymetrix X3P GeneChip. The correlation (r
values) for duplicates in FFPE sample A, r = 0.930; in FFPE sample B, r = 0.971; and for FFPE sample C, r
We have also demonstrated that the gene expression profiles from matched frozen and FFPE breast cancer
samples correlate with each other. More specifically, in 6 frozen and FFPE matched pairs the profiles
from the FFPE and frozen samples from the same breast tumor had greater similarity to each other than to
profiles generated from tumor samples from different patients (Figure 3). Inspection of tumor matched
FFPE and frozen tumor-derived profiles demonstrate similar gene expression patterns. Some differences do
exist, however the high degree of similarity supports the notion that RNA from FFPE samples can be used
for gene expression profiling.
Figure 3. Heat map of the overall expression profile of 11255 genes
among 6 matched FFPE and frozen samples (from 6 patients). Matched tissue samples (frz and ffpe
represent frozen and formalin fixed paraffin embedded tissues, respectively; numbers represent different
tumor samples) are on the Y-axis and the 11255 genes are along the X-axis. The FFPE and frozen samples
from the same breast cancer clustered together (having the highest similarity to each other).
Representative examples of clusters of highly similar gene expression within an FFPE-Frozen tissue pair
are depicted as white rectangles.
These results are promising and it is hoped that this approach will expedite translational and basic
science research in human breast cancer. However, caution should be exercised in the interpretation of
microarray-based gene expression signatures identified from FFPE tissues of varying age. Such signatures
should be rigorously validated in independent cohort using other gene expression technologies such as
real-time quantitative PCR.
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