Keeping data continuous when analyzing the prognostic impact of a tumor marker: an example with cathepsin D in breast cancer

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SummaryThe prognostic value of cathepsin D has been recently recognized, but as many quantitative tumor markers, its clinical use remains unclear partly because of methodological issues in defining cut-off values. Guidelines have been proposed for analyzing quantitative prognostic factors, underlining the need for keeping data continuous, instead of categorizing them. Flexible approaches, parametric and non-parametric, have been proposed in order to improve the knowledge of the functional form relating a continuous factor to the risk. We studied the prognostic value of cathepsin D in a retrospective hospital cohort of 771 patients with breast cancer, and focused our overall survival analysis, based on the Cox regression, on two flexible approaches: smoothing splines and fractional polynomials. We also determined a cut-off value from the maximum likelihood estimate of a threshold model. These different approaches complemented each other for (1) identifying the functional form relating cathepsin D to the risk, and obtaining a cut-off value and (2) optimizing the adjustment for complex covariate like age at diagnosis in the final multivariate Cox model. We found a significant increase in the death rate, reaching 70% with a doubling of the level of cathepsin D, after the threshold of 37.5 pmol mg−1. The proper prognostic impact of this marker could be confirmed and a methodology providing appropriate ways to use markers in clinical practice was proposed.

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