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Clin Cancer Res. 2005 May 15;11(10):3678-85.

Circulating tumor cells in breast cancer: correlation to bone marrow micrometastases, heterogeneous response to systemic therapy and low proliferative activity.

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Institute of Tumor Biology, Clinic of Gynecology, Institute of Experimental Pharmacology and Toxicology, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany.



The incidence and biological characteristics of circulating tumor cells in the blood of patients with breast cancer were examined and subgroups were evaluated in the context of systemic treatment and the presence of disseminated tumor cells in bone marrow.


Circulating tumor cells were isolated from the peripheral blood of patients with breast cancer using a gradient system designed for the enrichment of circulating tumor cells (OncoQuick). Circulating tumor cells were identified with the anti-cytokeratin antibody, A45-B/B3. In subsets of patients, expression of the proliferation-associated Ki-67 antigen in circulating tumor cells and the concomitant presence of micrometastases in bone marrow were examined.


In patients with primary breast cancer (stage M(0)), circulating tumor cells were detected in 5 of 60 patients (8.3%) after surgery and before initiation of adjuvant chemotherapy; a positive correlation to the presence of disseminated tumor cells in bone marrow was observed (P = 0.030, n = 53). During the course of adjuvant chemotherapy, repeated analysis of 20 M(0) patients revealed the occurrence of circulating tumor cells in 7 of 16 patients that were initially negative. Patients with metastatic disease (stage M(1)) showed circulating tumor cells in 25 of 63 cases (39.7%, P < 0.0001 as compared with M(0) patients), and a positive finding was correlated with elevated concentrations of the serum tumor marker CA15.3 (P = 0.0093). Performing repeated analysis in a subgroup of 25 M(1) patients, circulating tumor cells were found more frequently in patients with progressive disease than in patients with stable disease or remission (87.5% versus 43.8% of patients with circulating tumor cells, respectively; P = 0.047). Independent of the disease-stage, none of the 47 patients examined for the proliferative status of their circulating tumor cells showed coexpression of Ki-67.


Circulating tumor cells seem to be nonproliferating cells that persist during chemotherapy. Circulating tumor cell detection is linked to disease progression and elevated tumor marker concentrations in patients with metastatic breast cancer.

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