Background: The detection of tumour cells circulating in the peripheral blood of patients with breast cancer is a sign that cells have been able to leave the primary tumour and survive in the circulation. However, in order to form metastases, they require additional properties such as the ability to adhere, self-renew, and grow. Here we present data that a variable fraction among the circulating tumour cells detected by the Maintrac® approach expresses mRNA of the stem cell gene NANOG and of the adhesion molecule vimentin and is capable of forming tumour spheres, a property ascribed to tumour-initiating cells (TICs).
Patients and methods: Between ten and 50 circulating epithelial antigen-positive cells detected by the Maintrac approach were selected randomly from each of 20 patients with breast cancer before and after surgery and were isolated using automated capillary aspiration and deposited individually onto slides for expression profiling. In addition, the circulating tumour cells were cultured without isolation among the white blood cells from 39 patients with breast cancer in different stages of disease using culture methods favouring growth of epithelial cells.
Results: Although no epithelial cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM)-positive cells expressing stem cell genes or the adhesion molecule vimentin was detected before surgery, 10%–20% of the cells were found to be positive for mRNA of these genes after surgery. Tumour spheres from circulating cells of 39 patients with different stages of breast cancer were grown without previous isolation in a fraction increasing with the aggressivity of the tumour.
Summary: Here we show that among the peripherally circulating tumour cells, a variable fraction is able to express stem cell and adhesion properties and can be grown into tumour spheres, a property ascribed to cells capable of initiating tumours and metastases.