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01.12.2017 | Research article | Ausgabe 1/2017 Open Access

BMC Cancer 1/2017

Comparison of triple-negative breast cancer molecular subtyping using RNA from matched fresh-frozen versus formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded tissue

BMC Cancer > Ausgabe 1/2017
Bojana Jovanović, Quanhu Sheng, Robert S. Seitz, Kasey D. Lawrence, Stephan W. Morris, Lance R. Thomas, David R. Hout, Brock L. Schweitzer, Yan Guo, Jennifer A. Pietenpol, Brian D. Lehmann
Wichtige Hinweise

Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (doi:10.​1186/​s12885-017-3237-1) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Bojana Jovanović and Quanhu Sheng contributed equally to this work.



Triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) is a heterogeneous disease that lacks unifying molecular alterations that can guide therapy decisions. We previously identified distinct molecular subtypes of TNBC (TNBCtype) using gene expression data generated on a microarray platform using frozen tumor specimens. Tumors and cell lines representing the identified subtypes have distinct enrichment in biologically relevant transcripts with differing sensitivity to standard chemotherapies and targeted agents. Since our initial discoveries, RNA-sequencing (RNA-seq) has evolved as a sensitive and quantitative tool to measure transcript abundance.


To demonstrate that TNBC subtypes were similar between platforms, we compared gene expression from matched specimens profiled by both microarray and RNA-seq from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA). In the clinical care of patients with TNBC, tumor specimens collected for diagnostic purposes are processed by formalin fixation and paraffin-embedding (FFPE). Thus, for TNBCtype to eventually have broad and practical clinical utility we performed RNA-seq gene expression and molecular classification comparison between fresh-frozen (FF) and FFPE tumor specimens.


Analysis of TCGA showed consistent subtype calls between 91% of evaluable samples demonstrating conservation of TNBC subtypes across microarray and RNA-seq platforms. We compared RNA-seq performed on 21-paired FF and FFPE TNBC specimens and evaluated genome alignment, transcript coverage, differential transcript enrichment and concordance of TNBC molecular subtype calls. We demonstrate that subtype accuracy between matched FF and FFPE samples increases with sequencing depth and correlation strength to an individual TNBC subtype.


TNBC subtypes were reliably identified from FFPE samples, with highest accuracy if the samples were less than 4 years old and reproducible subtyping increased with sequencing depth. To reproducibly subtype tumors using gene expression, it is critical to select genes that do not vary due to platform type, tissue processing or RNA isolation method. The majority of differentially expressed transcripts between matched FF and FFPE samples could be attributed to transcripts selected for by RNA enrichment method. While differentially expressed transcripts did not impact TNBC subtyping, they will provide guidance on determining which transcripts to avoid when implementing a gene set size reduction strategy.

Trial registration

NCT00930930 07/01/2009.
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