WVU researchers correlate levels of circulating tumor cells in breast cancer patients

New test shows aggressiveness of tumors

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Researchers have long suspected that circulating tumor cells (CTC) may play a role in determining survival rates for patients with breast cancer. Now a team at West Virginia University has discovered that a test for CTC levels signals whether a tumor is aggressive.

Understanding the tumor’s aggressiveness, as opposed to its size or bulk, could impact the treatments physicians recommend to patients.

“We know that malignant cells break off from the original tumor site. They shed, and the majority of them die. But a few cells survive in the blood vessels,” said Jame Abraham, M.D., medical director for the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center, who led the research team.  “The more cells in the blood, the worse the outcome for the patient.”

New WVU research published this month in the journal Clinical Breast Cancer shows that a CTC blood test won’t tell much about the tumor’s size or bulk but will provide a valuable predictor of its aggressiveness.

 “The CTC blood test is a new test,” Abraham explained. “We have found that the test may reflect the behavior of the tumor rather than its size.”

The research team studied records of 35 patients whose disease had spread, analyzing the patients’ test results at 166 time points. “Looking at the PET scans and CTC blood tests, we found that they are statistically correlated. But the correlation is not absolute,” Abraham said. “In many instances the PET scan is positive, but there are few circulating tumor cells. And in the opposite case there are high CTC levels, but the PET scan shows minimal or no disease.”

WVU researchers paired this finding with another recent discovery – patients with a high CTC count fare worse than other patients, regardless of whether their imaging scans provide encouraging results.

“We knew that patients with high CTC levels fared worse. But we didn’t know it was because of the tumor’s aggressiveness,” Abraham said. “Now we know that CTC is a key player.”

Clinical trials are needed to determine whether the test will be useful to physicians in constructing treatment regimens.

The article, titled “Correlation among [18F] FDG-PET/CT, tumor marker CA 27.29, and circulating tumor cell test in metastatic breast cancer,” is based on research that received a merit award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology in June 2007.

For more information about WVU’s Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center, visit www.hsc.wvu.edu/mbrcc/.


For more information:
Andrea Brunais, HSC News Service, 304-293-7087
ab: 08-20-08

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