Epithelial mesenchymal transition (EMT) is a crucial event likely involved in dissemination of epithelial cancer cells. This process enables them to acquire migratory/invasive properties, contributing to tumor and metastatic spread. To know if this event is an early one in breast cancer, we developed a clinical trial. The aim of this protocol was to detect circulating tumor cells endowed with mesenchymal and/or stemness characteristics, at the time of initial diagnosis. Breast cancer patients (n = 61), without visceral or bone metastasis were enrolled and analysis of these dedifferentiated circulating tumor cells (ddCTC) was realized.
AdnaGen method was used for enrichment cell selection. Then, ddCTC were characterized by RT-PCR study of the following genes: PI3Kα, Akt-2, Twist1 (EMT markers) and ALDH1, Bmi1 and CD44 (stemness indicators).
Among the studied primary breast cancer cohort, presence of ddCTC was detected in 39% of cases. This positivity is independant from tumor clinicopathological factors apart from the lymph node status.
Our data uniquely demonstrated that in vivo EMT occurs in the primary tumors and is associated with an enhanced ability of tumor cells to intravasate in the early phase of cancer disease. These results suggest that analysis of circulating tumor cells focused on cells showing mesenchymal or stemness characteristics might facilitate assessment of new drugs in clinical trials.