The Who, What, Where, When and Sometimes, Why.

Molecular Subtypes of Breast Cancer

Researchers are studying how molecular subtypes of breast cancer may be useful in planning treatment and developing new therapies.

The complex profile of each subtype is determined using molecular and genetic information from tumor cells.

Most studies divide breast cancer into 4 major molecular subtypes:

  • Luminal A
  • Luminal B
  • Triple negative/basal-like
  • HER2-enriched

These subtypes also appear in ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) [55].

There are many other less common molecular subtypes, including claudin-low and molecular apocrine types.

How are molecular subtypes used?

At this time, molecular subtypes are used mostly in research settings.

The molecular subtype of your tumor is not part of your pathology report and is not used to guide your treatment.

Prognosis and treatment decisions are guided mainly by tumor stage, tumor grade, hormone receptor status and HER2 status.

Luminal A

Luminal tumor cells look the most like cells of breast cancers that start in the inner (luminal) cells lining the mammary ducts.

Luminal A tumors tend to be:

About 30-45 percent of breast cancers are luminal A tumors [57-59].

Of the 4 major subtypes, luminal A tumors tend to have the best prognosis, with fairly high survival rates and fairly low recurrence rates [57-62].

Luminal B

Luminal tumor cells look like those of breast cancers that start in the inner (luminal) cells lining the mammary ducts.

Luminal B tumors tend to be ER-positive. They may be HER2-negative or HER2-positive.

Women with luminal B tumors are often diagnosed at a younger age than those with luminal A tumors [61,63].

Compared to luminal A tumors, luminal B tumors tend to have factors that lead to a poorer prognosis including [57-58,61,64]:

  • Poorer tumor grade
  • Larger tumor size
  • Lymph node-positive

About 10-20 percent of breast cancers are luminal B tumors [57-59].

Women with luminal B tumors tend to have fairly high survival rates, although not as high as those with luminal A tumors [61-62].

Triple negative/basal-like

Triple negative breast cancers are:

Basal-like tumors have cells that look similar to those of the outer (basal) cells surrounding the mammary ducts.

Most triple negative tumors are basal-like and most basal-like tumors are triple negative (see figure below).

 

Triple Negative-basal Like Tumors Venn Diagram

 

About 15-20 percent of breast cancers are triple negative/basal-like [57-59,65-66].

These tumors tend to occur more often in [63,65-68]:

Triple negative tumors may also be more common among Hispanic women compared to white/non-Hispanic white women [67-69].

Most BRCA1-related breast cancers are both triple negative and basal-like [70-72].

Learn more about BRCA1 gene mutations.

Prognosis

Triple negative/basal-like tumors are often aggressive and have a poorer prognosis compared to the ER-positive subtypes (luminal A and luminal B tumors) [57,62,66].

However, they can be treated successfully.

Learn more about triple negative breast cancer, including prognosis and treatment.

Learn about clinical trials for people with triple negative/basal-like breast cancers.

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Komen Perspectives

Read our perspective on triple negative breast cancers.*

HER2-enriched

The molecular subtype HER2-enriched is not the same as HER2-positive and is not used to guide treatment.

Although most HER2-enriched tumors are HER2-positive (and named for this reason), about 30 percent are HER2-negative [59].

HER2-enriched tumors tend to be [57,59,61]:

  • ER-negative
  • PR-negative
  • Lymph node-positive
  • Poorer tumor grade

About 5-15 percent of breast cancers are HER2-enriched subtype [57,60].

Women with HER2-enriched tumors may be diagnosed at a younger age than those with luminal A and luminal B tumors [61,63].

HER2-enriched breast cancers that are HER2-positive can be treated with HER2-targeted therapies such as trastuzumab (Herceptin). Before these drugs were available, these tumors had a fairly poor prognosis [57].

Race/ethnicity and subtypes of breast cancer

Prevalence

Prevalence rates of some molecular subtypes of breast cancer differ by race.

Triple negative/basal-like tumors appear to be more common among Black/non-Hispanic black/African-American women (especially before menopause) compared to women of other ethnicities [63,65-68].

Triple negative tumors may be more common among Hispanic women compared to white/non-Hispanic white women [67-69]. 

Although the reasons for these differences are not clear, some lifestyle factors may play a role [73].

Prevalence rates of luminal B and HER2 type tumors don’t appear to differ by race [67].

Learn more about race/ethnicity and breast cancer.

Learn more about race/ethnicity and risk factors for triple negative breast cancer.

Prognosis

Higher rates of triple negative/basal-like tumors may explain, to some degree, the poor prognosis of breast cancers diagnosed in younger African-American/non-Hispanic black women [67,73].

Also, luminal A tumors, which have the best prognosis of the subtypes, occur less often in premenopausal black/non-Hispanic black women compared to postmenopausal black/non-Hispanic black women and compared to non-Hispanic white women of either menopausal status [67,74].

*Please note, the information provided within Komen Perspectives articles is only current as of the date of posting. Therefore, some information may be out of date at this time.