Background: Progression to stage IV disease remains the main cause of breast cancer-related deaths. Increasing knowledge on the hematogenous phase of metastasis is key for exploiting the entire window of opportunity to interfere with early dissemination and to achieve a more effective disease control. Recent evidence suggests that circulating tumor cells (CTCs) possess diverse adaptive mechanisms to survive in blood and eventually metastasize, encouraging research into CTC-directed therapies.
Methods: On the hypothesis that the distinguishing molecular features of CTCs reveal useful information on metastasis biology and disease outcome, we compared the transcriptome of CTCs, primary tumors, lymph-node and lung metastases of the MDA-MB-231 xenograft model, and assessed the biological role of a panel of selected genes, by in vitro and in vivo functional assays, and their clinical significance in M0 and M+ breast cancer patients.
Results: We found that hematogenous dissemination is governed by a transcriptional program and identified a CTC signature that includes 192 up-regulated genes, mainly related to cell plasticity and adaptation, and 282 down-regulated genes, involved in chromatin remodeling and transcription. Among genes up-regulated in CTCs, FADS3 was found to increases cell membrane fluidity and promote hematogenous diffusion and lung metastasis formation. TFF3 was observed to be associated with a subset of CTCs with epithelial-like features in the experimental model and in a cohort of 44 breast cancer patients, and to play a role in cell migration, invasion and blood-borne dissemination. The analysis of clinical samples with a panel of CTC-specific genes (ADPRHL1, ELF3, FCF1, TFF1 and TFF3) considerably improved CTC detection as compared with epithelial and tumor-associated markers both in M0 and stage IV patients, and CTC kinetics informed disease relapse in the neoadjuvant setting.
Conclusions: Our findings provide evidence on the potential of a CTC-specific molecular profile as source of metastasis-relevant genes in breast cancer experimental models and in patients. Thanks to transcriptome analysis we generated a novel CTC signature in the MDA-MB-231 xenograft model, adding a new piece to the current knowledge on the key players that orchestrate tumor cell hematogenous dissemination and breast cancer metastasis, and expanding the list of CTC-related biomarkers for future validation studies.