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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1998 Apr 14;95(8):4589-94.

Detection and characterization of carcinoma cells in the blood.

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Cancer Immunobiology Center, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, 5323 Harry Hines Boulevard, Dallas, TX 75235, USA.


A highly sensitive assay combining immunomagnetic enrichment with multiparameter flow cytometric and immunocytochemical analysis has been developed to detect, enumerate, and characterize carcinoma cells in the blood. The assay can detect one epithelial cell or less in 1 ml of blood. Peripheral blood (10-20 ml) from 30 patients with carcinoma of the breast, from 3 patients with prostate cancer, and from 13 controls was examined by flow cytometry for the presence of circulating epithelial cells defined as nucleic acid+, CD45(-), and cytokeratin+. Highly significant differences in the number of circulating epithelial cells were found between normal controls and patients with cancer including 17 with organ-confined disease. To determine whether the circulating epithelial cells in the cancer patients were neoplastic cells, cytospin preparations were made after immunomagnetic enrichment and were analyzed. Epithelial cells from patients with breast cancer generally stained with mAbs against cytokeratin and 3 of 5 for mucin-1. In contrast, no cells that stained for these antigens were observed in the blood from normal controls. The morphology of the stained cells was consistent with that of neoplastic cells. Of 8 patients with breast cancer followed for 1-10 months, there was a good correlation between changes in the level of tumor cells in the blood with both treatment with chemotherapy and clinical status. The present assay may be helpful in early detection, in monitoring disease, and in prognostication.

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