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J Clin Oncol. 1995 Aug;13(8):2109-16.

Detection of occult melanoma cells in blood with a multiple-marker polymerase chain reaction assay.

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Division of Molecular and Cellular Immunology, John Wayne Cancer Institute, Santa Monica, CA 90404, USA.



The objective of the study was to develop a sensitive multimarker polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay to detect circulating melanoma cells in patient blood. The rationale was that malignant melanoma is heterogeneous in regards to antigen expression.


A PCR assay that uses four melanoma-associated gene markers (tyrosinase, p97, MUC18, and MAGE-3) was developed. Sensitivity and specificity of the PCR assay for individual markers were assessed using 10 melanoma cell lines and peripheral-blood lymphocytes (PBL) from 39 normal volunteers as controls. The assay's sensitivity and specificity were improved using nested primers and Southern blot analysis. Patients (N = 119) with American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) stages I to IV disease were evaluated for circulating melanoma cells using the four gene markers under optimal conditions.


All melanoma-associated gene markers were expressed in at least 80% of the melanoma lines, whereas 37 of 39 normal PBL tested negative for all markers; the remaining two PBL were positive for MUC18. Using four markers in the PCR assay was significantly better than using tyrosinase alone. There was a significant correlation between the number of positive PCR markers, AJCC stage of disease, and progression of disease. In all AJCC stages, there were more PCR-positive patients with disease than without disease.


A multimarker PCR assay is more reliable and sensitive than a single-marker assay for detection of melanoma cells in blood of patients. This assay can provide important insight into tumor progression kinetics without major surgical or conventional radiologic diagnostic procedures.

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