Background: Better breast cancer prognostication may improve selection of patients for adjuvant therapy. We conducted a retrospective follow-up study in which we investigated sera of high-risk primary breast cancer patients, to search for proteins predictive of recurrence free survival. Methods: Two sample sets of high-risk primary breast cancer patients participating in a randomised national trial investigating the effectiveness of high-dose chemotherapy were analysed. Sera in set I (n = 63) were analysed by surface enhanced laser desorption ionisation time-of-flight mass spectrometry (SELDI-TOF MS) for biomarker finding. Initial results were validated by analysis of sample set II (n = 371), using one-dimensional gel-electrophoresis. Results: In sample set I, the expression of a peak at mass-to-charge ratio 9198 (relative intensity ≤ 20 or > 20), identified as haptoglobin (Hp) alpha-1 chain, was strongly associated with recurrence free survival (global Log-rank test; p = 0.0014). Haptoglobin is present in three distinct phenotypes (Hp 1-1, Hp 2-1, and Hp 2-2), of which only individuals with phenotype Hp 1-1 or Hp 2-1 express the haptoglobin alpha-1 chain. As the expression of the haptoglobin alpha-1 chain, determined by SELDI-TOF MS, corresponds to the phenotype, initial results were validated by haptoglobin phenotyping of the independent sample set II by native one-dimensional gel-electrophoresis. With the Hp 1-1 phenotype as the reference category, the univariate hazard ratio for recurrence was 0.87 (95% CI: 0.56 - 1.34, p = 0.5221) and 1.03 (95% CI: 0.65 - 1.64, p = 0.8966) for the Hp 2-1 and Hp 2-2 phenotypes, respectively, in sample set II. Conclusion: In contrast to our initial results, the haptoglobin phenotype was not identified as a predictor of recurrence free survival in high-risk primary breast cancer in our validation set. Our initial observation in the discovery set was probably the result of a type I error (i.e. false positive). This study illustrates the importance of validation in obtaining the true clinical applicability of a potential biomarker. © 2008 Gast et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.