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The generation of urokinase plasminogen activator (uPA) by tumours is an important pathway for neoplastic cell invasion and metastasis. Indeed in several tumour types, elevated levels of uPA, its receptor (uPAR) or its inhibitor plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1) is associated with a poorer prognosis. Since endothelial cells also use this proteolytic system to remodel the extracellular matrix during angiogenesis and since angiogenesis, as assessed by microvessel density, is also a predictor of patient survival, this study was designed to investigate the relationship between angiogenesis and the urokinase system in breast tumours. The aims were to assess whether the uPA, uPAR and/or PAI-1 correlates with angiogenic activity and could therefore be a useful objective clinical measure of tumour neovascularization; and to clarify whether the poor outcome associated with high levels of the urokinase system is due to its association with angiogenesis. The study also sought to examine the relationship between the uPA system and vessel remodelling using loss of a basement membrane epitope (LH39) normally associated with established capillaries. The cytosolic levels of uPA, PAI-1 and uPAR were therefore measured by enzyme linked immunoabsorbent assay, together with tumour vascularity, in 136 well-characterized invasive breast carcinomas. There were significant relationships between uPA and uPAR (Spearman r=0.37, p<0.0001), uPA and PAI-1 (Spearman r=0.19, p=0.03) and between uPAR and PAI-1 (Spearman r=0.23 p=0.01). A significant correlation was also observed between PAI-1 and vessel remodelling (Spearman r=0.34, p=0.04), patient age (p=0.01), nodal status (p=0.047) and tumour grade (p=0.04), but no association between tumour vascularity and PAI (p=0.96), uPA (p=0.69) or uPAR (p=0.81) was present. No significant association was seen between any of the urokinase variables and expression of the angiogenic factor thymidine phosphorylase. Furthermore, no significant associations were found between any of the studied parameters and overall survival in a univariate analysis of the cancer patients. A multivariate Cox proportional hazard model of overall survival showed that uPA (p=0.15), but not uPAR (p=0.52) or PAI-1 (p=0.61), gave no additional prognostic information. These findings show that uPA may work via an independent pathway to angiogenesis and therefore combined blockade of uPA and angiogenesis may have additional therapeutic benefits. It also shows, as recently demonstrated in animal models, that PAI-1 may be a key regulator of vascular remodelling in human cancer.

Original publication




Journal article


J Pathol

Publication Date





236 - 243


Adult, Aged, Biomarkers, Tumor, Breast Neoplasms, Female, Follow-Up Studies, Humans, Middle Aged, Neovascularization, Pathologic, Plasminogen Activator Inhibitor 1, Prognosis, Proportional Hazards Models, Receptors, Cell Surface, Receptors, Urokinase Plasminogen Activator, Survival Rate, Urokinase-Type Plasminogen Activator