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WHAT IS AN ONCOTYPE DX TEST?

Dr. Rae Osborn 18 Nov 2022
WHAT IS AN ONCOTYPE DX TEST?

The Oncotype DX test is a genetic test that is done to establish a person’s risk of having cancer return in the future. The test is used in people who have cancer of the breast, prostate, and colon. These cancers afflict many people every year; it is often a challenge to treat these conditions and is difficult to know if the cancer is likely to return in the future. This is where the Oncotype DX test comes in handy.

How does the Oncotype DX test work?

The Oncotype DX test examines the genes found in certain cancer cells. The test is done on a sample removed during a biopsy of the affected tissue. A biopsy is when a small piece of tissue is cut out for further testing.

Genetic testing is then done using the cells of the biopsy. The genetic tests use a molecular procedure known as reverse-transcriptase PCR (RT-PCR). The RT-PCR makes DNA from RNA extracted from the cancer cells; this then allows scientists to determine the genes.

A score is derived based on the expression of certain types and numbers of genes known to impact cancer. The number of genes screened for in the test depends on the type of cancer in each case.

The BIRC5 gene

One of the important genes tested for in all the Oncotype DX tests is BIRC5. BIRC5 is associated with several types of cancer. This gene, when expressed in cancer cells, usually means a poor prognosis. This is because BIRC5 encourages cell proliferation, which ultimately leads to tumor growth.

The idea is to generate a score based on BIRC5 and similar genes and then use this score to help predict the likelihood of cancer returning. The results of the Oncotype DX test are also used to plan treatment and management for the patient with cancer.

Breast cancer and current treatment options

Breast cancer is diagnosed in approximately 264,000 people every year in the United States alone. This is a common type of cancer in which knowing about future risks is useful when planning treatment options.

Which of the treatments to use for a patient with breast cancer depends on a number of factors and the Oncotype DX test is one of the tools that can provide help for doctors making this decision.

Breast cancer treatment can be done in a number of ways. These are described below:

  • Surgery: Removing the breast or part of it where a tumor is found.
  • Hormone-blocking medications: Medicine that blocks hormones that cancer uses to grow.
  • Chemotherapy: The use of chemicals that are toxic to cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy: The use of beams of radiation targeted to where the cancer is.
  • Biological agents: These include antibodies and interleukins that help fight cancer.

Some of the treatment options, particularly chemotherapy and radiation therapy, have unpleasant and potentially harmful side effects. Side effects like nausea, fatigue, and hair loss, are common for both radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Having a molecular test to help assess the breast cancer can provide physicians with extra information to help them decide if additional or different treatment is needed.

Oncotype DX test for breast cancer

The most widely used application of Oncotype DX tests is in people who have breast cancer. The Oncotype DX Breast Recurrence Score test is only recommended for use in certain cases of breast cancer. These are discussed below:

  • The breast cancer is estrogen-receptor positive: This means the breast cancer cells can use the hormone estrogen.
  • The cancer is human epidermal growth factor receptor-negative. This means that the cells only have a few HER2 proteins. These proteins usually help control cell growth rate. A lack of this protein means cells like cancer, can grow out of control.
  • The breast cancer has been classified as stage I, II, or IIIA invasive. The stage gives the extent of the cancer, and invasive means that the cancer has spread from the point of origin.

Oncotype DX Breast Recurrence Score

The Oncotype DX Breast Recurrence Score can indicate whether or not it is better to have chemotherapy given the side effects of this treatment.

The DX score is based on the activity of 21 genes found in breast cancer cells. The results of the scores are given below:

For women who are 49 and younger, a score of:

  • 0 to 20 is a low to medium chance of recurrence and chemotherapy is not recommended.
  • 26 and higher indicates a high chance of recurrence and chemotherapy is recommended.

For women who are 50 and older, a score of:

  • 0 to 20 indicates a low to medium chance of recurrence and chemotherapy is not recommended.
  • 21 and greater indicates a medium to high chance of recurrence and chemotherapy is recommended.

Oncotype DX Breast DCIS Score

There is another Oncotype test for breast cancer called the Oncotype DX Breast DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ). Ductal carcinoma in situ means that there are cancer cells in the milk duct of the breast. The DCIS score is used to help assess the chance of invasive cancer to help doctors decide if radiation therapy is appropriate.

The Oncotype DX Breast DCIS scores:

  • Below 39 means a very low risk of cancer recurrence.
  • Between 39 and 54 is intermediate risk of recurrence.
  • 55 and higher is a high risk of recurrence.

Prostate cancer and current treatment options

There are over 268,000 cases of prostate cancer in the United States every year. There are various options for prostate cancer treatment including the following:

  • Surgery: A prostatectomy where the prostate is removed.
  • Ablation: This involves using heat or cold to shrink prostate tissue.
  • Hormone therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Immunotherapy: This is where substances are used to stimulate the person’s immune system to kill the cancer.

Oncotype DX test for prostate cancer

An Oncotype Genomic Prostate Score can be used to assess the risk associated with prostate cancer. This score is based on examining 17 relevant genes. The test is recommended for men with low-risk and very low-risk cancer to help doctors make decisions about treatment and management of their patients’ illness.

It is important to determine risk because of the unpleasant side effects and costs associated with cancer treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy. A higher score may mean that additional treatment is advisable. This is ultimately up to the doctor and patient to decide.

Oncotype Genomic Prostate Scores and the associated risks of cancer occurring again:

  • Below 26 is low risk
  • 26 to 59 is intermediate risk
  • Above 59 is high risk

Colon cancer and treatment options

The third cancer where the Oncotype DX test can be used is colon cancer. This cancer affects, on average, 4% of men and women. Colon cancer is being detected in more young people (younger than 50 years) than previously. There are various treatments available to treat this cancer; these therapies are outlined below:

  • Surgery: Removal of cancerous polyps or part of the colon that is cancerous.
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Targeted drugs: These are drugs that target specific proteins that help cancer to grow.
  • Immunotherapy methods

Oncotype DX test for colon cancer

This test uses 12 genes to evaluate the likelihood of recurrence of colon cancer. It is thought that the Oncotype DX colon cancer test should be used to further evaluate what adjuvant therapies besides surgery would be helpful in patients with stage II and III colon cancer.

Oncotype DX Colon Cancer Recurrence Score and risk of recurrence:

  • Less than 30 is a lower risk
  • Equal to or greater than 41 is a higher risk

In cases where the risk of recurrence is greater, adjuvant therapy may be recommended.  This is often chemotherapy or radiation, in addition to surgical removal of cancerous tissue.

Conclusion

The Oncotype DX test is a genomic assay that involves examining the genes in cancerous tissue taken during a biopsy. The idea is to use the gene expression of several genes to help assess if a patient’s cancer is likely to return in the future. This is a useful tool that oncologists can use to help plan a course of treatment for their cancer patients.

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About the Author:

Dr. Rae Osborn has a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Texas at Arlington. She was a tenured Associate Professor of Biology at Northwestern State University where she taught many courses for Pre-nursing and Pre-medical students. She has written extensively on medical conditions and healthy lifestyle topics, including nutrition. She is from South Africa but lived and taught in the United States for 18 years.

Sources:

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  • Lin, C. Y., Mooney, K., Choy, W., Yang, S. R., Barry-Holson, K., Horst, K., ... & Allison, K. (2018). Will oncotype DX DCIS testing guide therapy? A single-institution correlation of oncotype DX DCIS results with histopathologic findings and clinical management decisions. Modern Pathology, 31(4), 562-568. https://www.nature.com/articles/modpathol2017172
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