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Gene expression profiling of primary male breast cancers reveals two unique subgroups and identifies N-acetyltransferase-1 (NAT1) as a novel prognostic biomarker

Ida Johansson12, Cecilia Nilsson34, Pontus Berglund1, Martin Lauss12, Markus Ringnér12, Håkan Olsson1, Lena Luts5, Edith Sim6, Sten Thorstensson7, Marie-Louise Fjällskog4 and Ingrid Hedenfalk12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Oncology, Clinical Sciences, Lund University, Barngatan 2B, SE 22185 Lund, Sweden

2 CREATE Health Strategic Center for Translational Cancer Research, Lund University, BMC C13, SE 22184 Lund, Sweden

3 Center for Clinical Research, Central Hospital of Västerås, SE 72189 Västerås, Sweden

4 Department of Oncology, Uppsala University, SE 75185 Uppsala, Sweden

5 Department of Pathology, Lund University Hospital, SE 22185 Lund, Sweden

6 Department of Pharmacology, University of Oxford, Mansfield Road, Oxford, OX1 3SZ, UK

7 Department of Pathology, Linköping University Hospital, SE 58185 Linköping, Sweden

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Breast Cancer Research 2012, 14:R31  doi:10.1186/bcr3116

Published: 14 February 2012



Male breast cancer (MBC) is a rare and inadequately characterized disease. The aim of the present study was to characterize MBC tumors transcriptionally, to classify them into comprehensive subgroups, and to compare them with female breast cancer (FBC).


A total of 66 clinicopathologically well-annotated fresh frozen MBC tumors were analyzed using Illumina Human HT-12 bead arrays, and a tissue microarray with 220 MBC tumors was constructed for validation using immunohistochemistry. Two external gene expression datasets were used for comparison purposes: 37 MBCs and 359 FBCs.


Using an unsupervised approach, we classified the MBC tumors into two subgroups, luminal M1 and luminal M2, respectively, with differences in tumor biological features and outcome, and which differed from the intrinsic subgroups described in FBC. The two subgroups were recapitulated in the external MBC dataset. Luminal M2 tumors were characterized by high expression of immune response genes and genes associated with estrogen receptor (ER) signaling. Luminal M1 tumors, on the other hand, despite being ER positive by immunohistochemistry showed a lower correlation to genes associated with ER signaling and displayed a more aggressive phenotype and worse prognosis. Validation of two of the most differentially expressed genes, class 1 human leukocyte antigen (HLA) and the metabolizing gene N-acetyltransferase-1 (NAT1), respectively, revealed significantly better survival associated with high expression of both markers (HLA, hazard ratio (HR) 3.6, P = 0.002; NAT1, HR 2.5, P = 0.033). Importantly, NAT1 remained significant in a multivariate analysis (HR 2.8, P = 0.040) and may thus be a novel prognostic marker in MBC.


We have detected two unique and stable subgroups of MBC with differences in tumor biological features and outcome. They differ from the widely acknowledged intrinsic subgroups of FBC. As such, they may constitute two novel subgroups of breast cancer, occurring exclusively in men, and which may consequently require novel treatment approaches. Finally, we identified NAT1 as a possible prognostic biomarker for MBC, as suggested by NAT1 positivity corresponding to better outcome.