Mutations in the breast cancer susceptibility gene 1 (BRCA1) may account for one half of all familial breast cancers. Because of the wide spectrum of different germline mutations, identification of BRCA1 mutation carriers using current techniques is laborious and difficult. The majority of the identified mutations, however, lead to aberrant expression of the gene product in tumor tissue, potentially allowing the detection of BRCA1-linked breast cancers using simple histochemical techniques. We performed quantitative mRNA in situ hybridization analysis on archival paraffin-embedded tumor specimens from 25 patients with characterized germline BRCA1 mutations or linkage and from 29 patients with sporadic breast cancers. BRCA1 mRNA levels were invariably low in tumors from BRCA1 mutation carriers. Normal breast epithelium surrounding the BRCA1 tumors showed higher mRNA levels than the tumor tissue, indicating that the low mRNA levels were due to somatic inactivation of the wild-type BRCA1 allele in the tumor tissue. The expression levels in the sporadic tumors were, on average, six times higher than in the BRCA1 tumors (P < 0.0001). The difference allowed identification of BRCA1-mutated and sporadic tumors with more than 95% specificity and sensitivity. We conclude that the analysis of BRCA1 gene expression by mRNA in situ hybridization may be useful in screening for patients with BRCA1-linked breast cancer.

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The study was supported in part by the Finnish Science Academy, Finnish Cancer Society, Sigrid Juselius Foundation, Tampere University Hospital Foundation, Swedish Cancer Society, and Nordic Cancer Union.

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