J Clin Pathol 53:125-130 doi:10.1136/jcp.53.2.125

Reliability of immunohistochemical demonstration of oestrogen receptors in routine practice: interlaboratory variance in the sensitivity of detection and evaluation of scoring systems

  1. A Rhodes1,
  2. B Jasani2,
  3. D M Barnes3,
  4. L G Bobrow4,
  5. K D Miller1
  1. 1Department of Histopathology, University College London Medical School, Rockefeller Building, University Street, London WC1E 6JJ, UK
  2. 2Department of Pathology, University of Wales College of Medicine, Cardiff, UK
  3. 3Hedley Atkins ICRF Breast Pathology Laboratory, Guy's Hospital, London SE1, UK
  4. 4Department of Histopathology, Addenbrookes NHS Trust, Cambridge, UK
  1. Mr Rhodes email: rmkdhcr{at}
  • Accepted 6 August 1999


Aims—To investigate interlaboratory variance in the immunohistochemical (IHC) detection of oestrogen receptors so as to determine the rate of false negatives, which could adversely influence the decision to give adjuvant tamoxifen treatment.

Methods—To ensure that similar results are obtained by different institutions, 200 laboratories from 26 countries have joined the UK national external quality assessment scheme for immunocytochemistry (NEQAS-ICC). Histological sections from breast cancers having low, medium, and high levels of oestrogen receptor expression were sent to each of the laboratories for immunohistochemical staining. The results obtained were evaluated for the sensitivity of detection, first by estimating threshold values of 1% and 10% of stained tumour cells, and second by the Quick score method, by a panel of four assessors judging individual sections independently on a single blind basis. The results were also evaluated using participants' own threshold values.

Results—Over 80% of laboratories were able to demonstrate oestrogen receptor positivity on the medium and high expressing tumours, but only 37% of laboratories scored adequately on the low expressing tumour. Approximately one third of laboratories failed to register any positive staining in this tumour, while one third showed only minimal positivity.

Conclusions—There is considerable interlaboratory variability, especially in relation to the detection of breast cancers with low oestrogen receptor positivity, with a false negative rate of between 30% and 60%. This variability appears to be caused by minor differences in methodology that may be rectified by fine adjustment of overall technique.