New Predictive Tool Can Help Determine Treatment of Breast Cancer Patients

Contact:
Gwen Ericson
ericsong@wustl.edu
314-286-0141

Sept. 23, 2008 – A new predictive measurement, called a preoperative endocrine prognostic index (PEPI) score, could bring good news to many women diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. A low PEPI score could show that they have little risk of relapse and can safely avoid chemotherapy after surgery.

For others, a high PEPI score could warn that the risk of relapse after breast surgery is large and indicates that careful follow-up and aggressive therapy may be needed, say Washington University researchers at the Siteman Cancer Center and collaborating institutions in Europe.

A team led by medical oncologist Matthew Ellis, MB, BChir, PhD, a Siteman breast-cancer specialist, developed and validated the PEPI score. Ellis asserts that predictive tools such as this are vital to breast cancer treatment and research.

"At present, about 83 percent of patients are cured of breast cancer," he says. "The key is to identify that 83 percent so we can treat them with effective available therapies and focus our research efforts on the 17 percent who are resistant to current treatments."

The PEPI score was derived from tumor characteristics present after women with stage II and III breast cancer underwent four months of anti-estrogen therapy before having breast surgery. Presurgical anti-estrogen therapy with drugs such as tamoxifen and letrozole can shrink tumors that depend on estrogen for their growth and potentially allow breast-conserving surgery. The majority of breast cancer patients have these estrogen-receptor-positive tumors.

"This is a groundbreaking approach to predicting outcomes for patients with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer," says Ellis, the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Chair Medical Oncology at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. "In essence, we are looking at how tumors respond to anti-estrogen therapy in the short term to predict how well patients will do in the long term."

The study was published in the Sept. 23, 2008, online issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The PEPI score takes into account four factors present after presurgical anti-estrogen therapy to estimate risk of relapse and survival rates:

  • The size of the breast tumor
  • Whether cancer is present in nearby lymph nodes
  • How fast tumor cells are multiplying
  • Whether tumors lose their estrogen receptors

The researchers found that women with a PEPI score of 0 had almost no risk of cancer recurrence during the five-year follow-up. They could safely avoid taking chemotherapeutic agents after surgery.

"Chemotherapy after breast surgery is used to reduce relapse risk," Ellis says. "Since the rate of relapse in this group is so low, there is little chance that chemotherapy would be helpful to them."

Women with PEPI scores of 4 or above are at very high risk of having their cancer return and should be given all appropriate postsurgical treatments, according to the report. Those with PEPI scores of 1 to 3 fall in an intermediate group, and more studies are needed to determine the best courses of treatment for them, Ellis says.

PEPI scores are derived by assigning a certain number of points to each of the four PEPI factors. Patients with a PEPI score of 0 had a tumor that shrank to stage 0 or I or IIA after anti-estrogen therapy, and no cancer was present in lymph nodes. Their tumors also had low levels of a marker of cell growth and remained estrogen-receptor-positive after anti-estrogen therapy.

Women with PEPI scores of 4 or more tended to have larger tumors after anti-estrogen therapy and were also likely to have cancer in lymph nodes, high rates of tumor cell growth and tumors that lost their estrogen receptors. These women had about a 50 percent chance of relapse.

An intermediate group with PEPI scores of 1 to 3 had either large tumors but few of the other dangerous markers or small tumors with more of the dangerous markers.

Further study will be needed to determine the relapse risk for this group as well as to validate the PEPI model for predicting breast cancer mortality. Preliminary data showed that, as expected, women with low PEPI scores survived longer on average than those with high PEPI scores.

"We're entering a completely different diagnostic situation now, where we can profile stage II and III tumors after anti-estrogen therapy and use the results to guide the next treatment steps," Ellis says. "Further research will determine whether a similar approach can predict outcomes in women with earlier stage breast cancers."


Ellis MJ, Tao Y, Luo J, A'Hern R, Evans DB, Bhatnagar AS, Chaudri Ross, HA, von Kameke A, Miller WR, Smith I, Eiermann W, Dowsett M. Outcome prediction for estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer based on postneoadjuvant endocrine therapy tumor characteristics. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Sept. 23, 2008 (advance online publication).

Funding from Novartis and AstraZeneca supported this research.