Breast cancer biological characteristics change as age advances. Today, there is a lack of knowledge regarding age-specific molecular alterations that characterize breast tumours, notably in elderly patients. The vast majority of studies that aimed at exploring breast cancer in function of age are based on clinico-pathological data. Gene-expression signatures (GES), which in some ways capture biological information in a non-reductionist manner, represent powerful tools able to explore tumour heterogeneity.
Twenty-five GES were used for functional annotation of breast tumours in function of age: five for molecular subtyping, seven for immune response, three for metabolism, seven for critical pathways in cancer and three for prognosis. Affymetrix® genomics datasets were exclusively used to avoid cross-platform normalization issues. Available corresponding clinico-pathological data were also retrieved and analysed.
Fifteen publicly available datasets were pooled for a total of 2378 breast cancer patients (whole cohort), out of whom 1413 were of Caucasian origin. Three age groups were defined: ≤ 40 years (AG1), > 40 to < 70 years (AG2) and ≥ 70 years (AG3). We confirmed that age influenced the incidence of molecular subtypes. We found a significant growing incidence of luminal B and a decreasing kinetics for basal-like in function of age. We showed that AG3 luminal B tumours were less aggressive than AG1 luminal B tumours based on different GES (iron metabolism, mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation and reactive stroma), recurrence score prognostic GES and histological grade (SBR). Contrary to tumours of young patients, tumours of elderly patients concentrated favourable GES scores: high oestrogen receptor and mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation, low proliferation, basal-like, glycolysis, chromosomal instability and iron metabolism, and low GES prognostic scores (van't Veer 70-GES, genomic grade index and recurrence score).
Functional annotation of breast tumours by means of 25 GES demonstrated a decreasing aggressiveness of breast tumours in function of age. This strategy, which can be strengthened by increasing the number of representative GES to gain more insight into biological systems involved in this disease, provides a framework to develop rational therapeutic strategies in function of age.