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Breast Cancer Res. 2007;9(5):R74.

Determination of HER2 status using both serum HER2 levels and circulating tumor cells in patients with recurrent breast cancer whose primary tumor was HER2 negative or of unknown HER2 status.

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  • 1Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Tuebingen, Calwerstrasse, D-72076 Tuebingen, Germany.



At the time when metastatic disease is identified, assessment of human epidermal growth factor receptor (HER)2 status might help to optimize treatment decisions if HER2 status was not determined at first diagnosis and if HER2 positivity has been acquired during disease progression. Within this context, determination of serum HER2 or evaluation of HER2 status in circulating tumor cells (CTCs) may be of clinical relevance because metastatic tissue may be difficult to obtain for analysis as a result of its localization. The aim of this study was therefore to determine the HER2 status in serum and corresponding CTCs in patients with metastatic breast cancer whose primary tumors were HER2 negative or of unknown HER2 status.


Blood samples were obtained from 77 metastatic breast cancer patients with negative (n = 44) or unknown (n = 33) HER2 status. Serum HER2 was determined using a commercial HER2/neu ELISA kit. CTCs were detected by slide-based assay using immunomagnetic enrichment and characterized by phenotyping and genotyping. Alternatively, a commercial kit, based on RT-PCR, was used to detect and characterize CTCs.


Twenty out of 77 patients with metastatic disease had elevated serum levels of HER2. Blood samples could be analyzed for the presence of CTCs in 67 patients. Eight out of 21 patients with detectable CTCs exhibited HER2 amplification. Twenty-three out of 77 patients were HER2 positive using at least one method. Concordance between HER2 status of CTCs and serum HER2 was observed in 15 of 21 patients (71%). In six patients conflicting results were obtained. Three patients with elevated serum HER2 status had HER2-negative CTCs, whereas three patients with HER2-positive CTCs had normal serum HER2 levels.


A subgroup of patients with initially negative or unknown HER2 status can have elevated serum HER2 levels and/or HER2-positive CTCs at the time of development of metastatic disease. Although only a small number of patients were studied, our observations are of clinical relevance because, currently, these patients do not have access to HER2-targeted therapy.

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