Imaging modalities and cumulative total CTC count by each CTC type for the other seven patients who had increased CTC counts 1 to 2 months before detectable recurrence or the appearance of metastatic lesions; six of these patients also had increased M-CTC percentage (i.e., patients 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7).
ARTICLE ABSTRACTTo clarify the significance of circulating tumor cells (CTC) undergoing epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT) in patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), we used an advanced CanPatrol CTC-enrichment technique and in situ hybridization to enrich and classify CTC from blood samples. One hundred and one of 112 (90.18%) patients with HCC were CTC positive, even with early-stage disease. CTCs were also detected in 2 of 12 patients with hepatitis B virus (HBV), both of whom had small HCC tumors detected within 5 months. CTC count ≥16 and mesenchymal–CTC (M-CTC) percentage ≥2% prior to resection were significantly associated with early recurrence, multi-intrahepatic recurrence, and lung metastasis. Postoperative CTC monitoring in 10 patients found that most had an increased CTC count and M-CTC percentage before clinically detectable recurrence nodules appeared. Analysis of HCC with high CTC count and high M-CTC percentage identified 67 differentially expressed cancer-related genes involved in cancer-related biological pathways (e.g., cell adhesion and migration, tumor angiogenesis, and apoptosis). One of the identified genes, BCAT1, was significantly upregulated, and knockdown in Hepg2, Hep3B, and Huh7 cells reduced cell proliferation, migration, and invasion while promoting apoptosis. A concomitant increase in epithelial marker expression (EpCAM and E-cadherin) and reduced mesenchymal marker expression (vimentin and Twist) suggest that BCAT1 may trigger the EMT process. Overall, CTCs were highly correlated with HCC characteristics, representing a novel marker for early diagnosis and a prognostic factor for early recurrence. BCAT1 overexpression may induce CTC release by triggering EMT and may be an important biomarker of HCC metastasis.Significance: In liver cancer, CTC examination may represent an important “liquid biopsy” tool to detect both early disease and recurrent or metastatic disease, providing cues for early intervention or adjuvant therapy. Cancer Res; 78(16); 4731–44. ©2018 AACR.