The changing microRNA landscape by color and cloudiness: a cautionary tale for nipple aspirate fluid biomarker analysis

Susana I. S. Patuleia, Elsken van der Wall, Carla H. van Gils, Marije F. Bakker, Agnes Jager, Marleen M. Voorhorst-Ogink, Paul J. van Diest, Cathy B. Moelans*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Purpose: Investigation of nipple aspirate fluid (NAF)-based microRNAs (miRNAs) as a potential screening tool for women at increased risk of developing breast cancer is the scope of our research. While aiming to identify discriminating NAF-miRNAs between women with different mammographic densities, we were confronted with an unexpected confounder: NAF sample appearance. Here we report and alert for the impact of NAF color and cloudiness on miRNA assessment. Methods: Seven classes of NAF colors coupled with cloudiness appearance were established. Using 173 NAF samples from 154 healthy women (19 samples were bilaterally collected), the expression of 14 target and 2 candidate endogenous control (EC) miRNAs was investigated using Taqman Advanced miRNA assays to identify significant differential expression patterns between color-cloudiness classes. Inter- and intra-individual variation of miRNA expression was analyzed using the coefficient of variation (CV). Results: We found that between the seven NAF classes, fold change miRNA expression differences ranged between 2.4 and 19.6 depending on the interrogated miRNA. Clear NAF samples exhibited higher miRNA expression levels compared to cloudy NAF samples with fold change differences ranging between 1.1 and 6.2. Inter-individual and intra-individual miRNA expression was fairly stable (CV < 15 %), but nevertheless impacted by NAF sample appearance. Within NAF classes, inter-individual variation was largest for green samples (CV 6-15 %) and smallest for bloody samples (CV 2-6 %). Conclusions: Our data indicate that NAF color and cloudiness influence miRNA expression and should, therefore, be systematically registered using an objective color classification system. Given that sample appearance is an inherent feature of NAF, these variables should be statistically controlled for in multivariate data analyses. This cautionary note and recommendations could be of value beyond the field of NAF-miRNAs, given that variability in sample color and cloudiness is likewise observed in liquid biopsies such as urine, cerebrospinal fluid and sputum, and could thereby influence the levels of miRNAs and other biomarkers.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1339-1349
JournalCellular Oncology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2021
Externally publishedYes

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