The Bcl-2 proto-oncogene extends cell survival but does not confer any proliferative advantage to cells that express it. Thus, the loss of apoptosis may have a role in progression allowing the acquisition of additional mutations. To determine whether apoptosis loss at diagnosis is associated with the metastatic advantage of ductal breast carcinomas and to examine the relationship between Bcl-2 expression, p53, and tumor cell death status, we examined tumor samples from 116 patients diagnosed with T1 (2 cm or less) breast cancer with (n = 49) or without (n = 67) lymph node metastases. Apoptosis loss in histological sections was considered when <1% of tumor nuclei were stained with terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase labeled with biotin. We studied the expression of Bcl-2 and p53 by immunohistochemistry and in 37 p53 mutations by single-strand conformational polymorphism analysis and cycle sequencing. Multivariate logistic regression modeling was used to estimate prevalence odds ratios (pORs) for apoptosis loss and presence of lymph node metastases. Patients with marked apoptosis loss in their tumor cells were about 5 times more likely to present lymph node metastases than those with no apoptosis loss in their tumor cells (adjusted pOR, 4.7; 95% confidence interval, 1.4-15.6; trend test, P = 0.008). Bcl-2 expression was strongly associated with both apoptosis loss (pOR, 6.9; trend test, P < 0.0001) and presence of lymph node metastases (pOR, 5.7; trend test, P = 0.002). These associations were more evident in histological grade I and II tumors than in poorly differentiated histological grade III tumors and in p53-negative tumors than in p53-positive tumors. This study demonstrates for the first time that the lymphatic progression of T1 human breast cancer is strongly related to apoptosis loss.

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