Traditional factors currently used for prognostic stratification do not always adequately predict treatment response and disease evolution in advanced breast cancer patients. Therefore, the use of blood-based markers, such as circulating tumor cells (CTCs), represents a promising complementary strategy for disease monitoring. In this retrospective study, we explored the role of CTC counts as predictors of disease evolution in breast cancer patients with limited metastatic dissemination.
A total of 492 advanced breast cancer patients who had a CTC count assessed by CellSearch prior to starting a new line of systemic therapy were eligible for this analysis. Using the threshold of 5 CTCs/7.5 ml of blood, pretreatment CTC counts were correlated in the overall population with metastatic site distribution, evaluated at baseline and at the time of treatment failure, using Fisher’s exact test. Time to visceral progression and time to the development of new metastatic lesions and sites were estimated in patients with nonvisceral metastases and with single-site metastatic disease, respectively, by the Kaplan-Meier method. Survival times were compared between groups according to pretreatment CTC count by logrank test.
In the overall population, a pretreatment level ≥5 CTCs/7.5 ml was associated with an increased baseline number of metastatic sites compared with <5 CTCs/7.5 ml (P = 0.0077). At the time of treatment failure, patients with ≥5 CTCs/7.5 ml more frequently developed new metastatic lesions and sites compared with those with <5 CTCs/7.5 ml (development of new lesions: P = 0.0002; development of new sites: P = 0.0031). Among patients with disease originally confined to nonvisceral sites, ≥5 CTCs/7.5 ml was associated with remarkably shorter time to visceral metastases (P = 0.0021) and overall survival (P = 0.0006) compared with <5 CTCs/7.5 ml. In patients with single-site metastatic disease, ≥5 CTCs/7.5 ml was associated with a significant reduction of the time to development of new metastatic sites (P = 0.0051) and new lesions (P = 0.0002) and with worse overall survival (P = 0.0101).
Our results suggest that baseline CTC counts can be used as an early predictor of metastatic potential in breast cancer patients with limited metastatic dissemination.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s13058-014-0440-8) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.