CD44 is a transmembrane glycoprotein occurring in several isoforms with different extracellular regions. The various transcripts are encoded by one gene locus containing 20 exons, of which at least 10 can be alternatively spliced in nascent RNA. Isoforms encoded by the variant exons (termed CD44v) are highly restricted in their distribution in non-malignant tissue as opposed to the standard form of CD44 (CD44s) abundant in many tissues. Specific variant isoforms containing exon 6v have been shown to render nonmetastatic rat tumor cells metastatic. Based on the prominent role in rat metastasis formation, CD44v isoforms were suggested to be involved in human tumor progression. Correlations between prognosis and expression of CD44v have been reported for gastric and colon carcinoma, for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and recently for breast carcinoma. We evaluated the expression of CD44 isoforms in node-positive (n = 119) and node-negative (n = 108) cases of breast carcinoma by immunohistochemistry using CD44v exon-specific mAbs. In a subset of 43 cases of high-risk patients, reverse transcription-PCR was used to determine the exon composition of the transcripts. Protein and RNA expression data were probed statistically for their correlation to survival of the patients and clinical risk factors. In contrast to recently published data (M. Kaufmann et al., Lancet, 345: 615–619, 1995), in our cohort disease-free and overall survival data did not indicate significant correlations with the expression of the analyzed isoforms in univariate and multivariate analyses. Comparison of CD44 protein expression with established clinical risk factors for survival such as tumor size (pT1 + pT2) and histological grading revealed correlations with the presence of CD44s (P = 0.02 and P = 0.03, respectively) and CD44-9v (P = 0.05 for histological grading). Carcinoma tissues with elevated estrogen and progesterone receptor levels showed positive correlation with CD44-6v (P = 0.001), while a trend for significant coexpression of CD44s and CD44-9v isoforms was observed in estrogen receptor-positive tissues (P = 0.08 and 0.06, respectively). In breast cancer, CD44s, CD44-9v, and CD44-6v are apparently markers for cellular differentiation but not for tumor progression. Our data suggest that steroid hormone receptors may be associated with the in vivo expression of CD44-6v-containing isoforms in human mammary carcinoma.

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