Breast cancer dormancy can be maintained by small numbers of micrometastases
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Late relapse of breast cancer can occur more than 25 years after primary diagnosis. During the intervening years between initial treatment and relapse, occult cancers are maintained in an apparent state of dormancy that is poorly understood. In this study, we applied a probabilistic mathematical model to long-term follow-up studies of postresection patients to investigate the factors involved in mediating breast cancer dormancy. Our results suggest that long-term dormancy is maintained most often by just one growth-restricted dangerous micrometastasis. Analysis of the empirical data by Approximate Bayesian Computation indicated that patients in dormancy have between 1 and 5 micrometastases at 10 years postresection, when they escape growth restriction with a half-life of <69 years and are >0.4 mm in diameter. Before resection, primary tumors seed at most an average of 6 dangerous micrometastases that escape from growth restriction with a half-life of at least 12 years. Our findings suggest that effective preventive treatments will need to eliminate these small numbers of micrometastases, which may be preangiogenic and nonvascularized until they switch to growth due to one oncogenic mutation or tumor suppressor gene inactivation. In summary, breast cancer dormancy seems to be maintained by small numbers of sizeable micrometastases that escape from growth restriction with a half-life exceeding 12 years.