When is a prognostic factor useful? A guide for the perplexed.
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Traditionally, a number of variables have been used to predict outcome in patients with early-stage breast cancer. These tests are simple to perform and relatively inexpensive. Recently, a number of new factors, eg, tumor proliferative index, nuclear DNA content, and amplification or overexpression of growth-promoting genes or oncogenes have been identified as potential predictors of outcome in patients with breast cancer. There is now increasing pressure to introduce such tests into routine clinical practice. How does a clinical practitioner identify which test, or group of tests, best predicts adverse outcome and whether any more clinically useful information is provided than with the use of more traditional factors alone? The aim of a prognostic test in breast cancer is to predict which patients are destined to develop a recurrence of cancer and those who are not. The prognostic usefulness of a test can be expressed in terms of relative risk (RR), which is the ratio of the risk of breast cancer recurrence in patients who test positive to the risk in those who test negative. Methodologic guidelines that should be satisfied by a study evaluating the predictive ability of a test include the following: (1) Was an inception cohort assembled? (2) Was the referral pattern described? (3) Were laboratory and clinical outcomes assessed in a blinded fashion? (4) Was complete follow-up achieved? (5) Was adjustment for extraneous prognostic factors carried out? (6) Were appropriate statistical methods used? An approach is suggested to help the clinician choose the test, or combination of tests, likely to discriminate between "high-" and "low-risk" patients in his/her own practice. The decision regarding what particular threshold value (risk) defined by a prognostic test (or series of tests) warrants adjuvant therapy for an individual patient is a complex one but should be based on a clear presentation of the risks and benefits to the patient.
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