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Measuring chromosomal imbalance could clarify cancer prognosis

Measuring chromosomal imbalance could clarify cancer prognosis

Most human cells have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Deviations from this result in genetic disorders or cellular death.

Cancer cells often have too few or too many copies of some chromosomes, a condition called aneuploidy. Researchers have found that higher levels of aneuploidy lead to much greater lethality.

“These findings suggest a possible way to more accurately predict patients’ prognosis, and could be used to alert doctors which patients might need to be treated more aggressively, says Angelika Amon, the Kathleen and Curtis Marble Professor in Cancer Research in the Department of Biology and a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

“To me, the exciting opportunity here is the ability to inform treatment, because prostate cancer is such a prevalent cancer,” says Amon, who co-led this study with Lorelei Mucci, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Aneuploidy occurs when cells make errors sorting their chromosomes during cell division. When aneuploidy occurs in embryonic cells, it is almost always fatal to the organism. For human embryos, extra copies of any chromosome are lethal, with the exceptions of chromosome 21, which produces Down syndrome; chromosomes 13 and 18, which lead to developmental disorders known as Patau and Edwards syndromes; and the X and Y sex chromosomes. Extra copies of the sex chromosomes can cause various disorders but are not usually lethal.

Most cancers also show very high prevalence of aneuploidy.  There is evidence that aneuploidy makes cancer cells more aggressive, but it has been difficult to definitively demonstrate that link because in most types of cancer nearly all tumors are aneuploid, making it difficult to perform comparisons.

Prostate cancer is an ideal model to explore the link between aneuploidy and cancer aggressiveness, because, unlike most other solid tumors, many prostate cancers (25 percent) are not aneuploid or have only a few altered chromosomes. This allows researchers to more easily assess the impact of aneuploidy on cancer progression.

What made the study possible was a collection of prostate tumor samples from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health over the course of more than 30 years. The researchers had genetic sequencing information for these samples, as well as data on whether and when their prostate cancer had spread to other organs and whether they had died from the disease.

The  researchers came up with a way to calculate the degree of aneuploidy of each sample, by comparing the genetic sequences of those samples with aneuploidy data from prostate genomes in The Cancer Genome Atlas. They could then correlate aneuploidy with patient outcomes, and they found that patients with a higher degree of aneuploidy were five times more likely to die from the disease. 

“Prostate cancer is terribly overdiagnosed and terribly overtreated,” she says. “So many people have radical prostatectomies, which has significant impact on people’s lives. On the other hand, thousands of men die from prostate cancer every year. Assessing aneuploidy could be an additional way of helping to inform risk stratification and treatment, especially among people who have tumors with high Gleason scores and are therefore at higher risk of dying from their cancer.”

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