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Clin Cancer Res. 2004 Feb 15;10(4):1392-400.

Clinical significance of immunocytochemical detection of tumor cells using digital microscopy in peripheral blood and bone marrow of breast cancer patients.

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  • 1Medical Oncology Department, Unité Mixte de Recherche 144 Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique, Paris, France.



The presence of tumor cells in bone marrow has been reported to represent an important prognostic indicator in breast cancer, but the clinical significance of circulating cells in peripheral blood is less well known. The aim of this study was to evaluate the feasibility of identifying cytokeratin (CK)-expressing cells in peripheral blood with an automat-assisted immunohistochemical detection system and to compare it with detection of tumor cells in bone marrow samples.


Cytospun Ficoll fractions of peripheral blood and bone marrow were obtained simultaneously in 114 breast cancer patients at different stages of the disease (I to IV) before treatment with chemotherapy. The pancytokeratin (CK) monoclonal antibody A45-B/B3 (anti-CKs 8, 18, and 19) was used for epithelial cell detection. Immunostained cells were detected by an automated cellular imaging system (ChromaVision Medical System).


CK+ cells were detected in 28 (24.5%) patients in blood and in 67 (59%) patients in bone marrow. Twenty-six (93%) patients with CK-positive cells in blood also had positive bone marrow (P < 0.001). Positive cells were detected in peripheral blood in 3/39 (7.5%) operable breast cancers (stage I/II), 9 of 36 (25%) locally advanced breast cancers (stage III), and 16 of 39 (41%) patients with metastatic disease (stage IV; P = 0.017). In the subgroup of nonmetastatic patients (n = 75), prognostic factors for poor disease-free survival were: absence of estrogen receptor; presence of CK+ cells in bone marrow (P = 0.012); clinical nodal involvement; large tumor size (T4); and presence of tumor emboli. Presence of circulating CK+ cells in the peripheral blood was not statistically correlated with disease-free survival. On multivariate analysis, independent indicators for disease-free survival were: absence of estrogen receptor (P = 0.043) and presence of CK+ cells in bone marrow (P = 0.076).


The clinical relevance of circulating epithelial cells as a prognostic factor is not supported by the present data, especially in comparison with tumor cells in the bone marrow. However, this method of detection may be useful to monitor the efficacy of treatment in advanced or metastatic breast cancer.

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