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Keywords:

  • Erythropoietin;
  • Erythropoietin receptor;
  • Erythropoiesis stimulating agents;
  • Growth factors;
  • Tumor progression

Abstract

Despite the prevalence of anemia in cancer, recombinant erythropoietin (Epo) has declined in use because of recent Phase III trials showing more rapid cancer progression and reduced survival in subjects randomized to Epo. Since Epo receptor (EpoR), Jak2, and Hsp70 are well-characterized mediators of Epo signaling in erythroid cells, we hypothesized that Epo might be especially harmful in patients whose tumors express high levels of these effectors. Because of the insensitivity of immunohistochemistry for detecting low level EpoR protein, we developed assays to measure levels of EpoR, Jak2 and Hsp70 mRNA in formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded (FFPE) tumors. We tested 23 archival breast tumors as well as 136 archival head and neck cancers from ENHANCE, a Phase III trial of 351 patients randomized to Epo versus placebo concomitant with radiotherapy following complete resection, partial resection, or no resection of tumor. EpoR, Jak2, and Hsp70 mRNA levels varied >30-fold, >12-fold, and >13-fold across the breast cancers, and >30-fold, >40-fold, and >30-fold across the head and neck cancers, respectively. Locoregional progression-free survival (LPFS) did not differ among patients whose head and neck cancers expressed above- versus below-median levels of EpoR, Jak2 or Hsp70, except in the subgroup of patients with unresected tumors (n = 28), where above-median EpoR, above-median Jak2, and below-median Hsp70 mRNA levels were all associated with significantly poorer LPFS. Our results provide a framework for exploring the relationship between Epo, cancer progression, and survival using archival tumors from other Phase III clinical trials. STEM CELLS 2009;27:2353–2361