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Circulating Breast Tumor Cells Exhibit Dynamic Changes in Epithelial and Mesenchymal Cell Composition
Measurement Type: 
Transcription Profiling (RNA-Seq)
Disease State
Epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT) has been postulated to contribute to the migration and dissemination of cancer cells, but supporting histopathological evidence is limited. We used a microfluidic device to isolate circulating tumor cells (CTCs), combined with multiplex fluorescent RNA-in-situ hybridization (ISH) and RNA sequencing, to quantify and characterize EMT in breast cancer cells within the bloodstream. Whereas only rare (0.1-10%) cells in the primary tumor expressed both mesenchymal and epithelial markers, such biphenotypic as well as purely mesenchymal cells were enriched among CTCs, across all histological subtypes of breast cancer. In an index patient followed longitudinally, fluctuation in epithelial and mesenchymal states was observed as a function of initial response and subsequent resistance to therapy. Mesenchymal markers were predominant in clusters of tumor cells, many of which had adherent platelets. Finally, RNA sequencing of CTC clusters identified TGF-β and other EMT-related signatures, which were absent from more epithelial CTCs. FOXC1, a known regulator of EMT, was abundantly expressed in mesenchymal CTCs and was detectable within localized regions of the primary breast tumor. Together, these data support a role for EMT in the blood-borne dissemination of breast cancer and point to the dynamic nature of this cell fate change.
Emily Merrill


Circulating breast tumor cells exhibit dynamic changes in epithelial and mesenchymal composition.
Yu M, Bardia A, Wittner BS, Stott SL, Smas ME, Ting DT, Isakoff SJ, Ciciliano JC, Wells MN, Shah AM, et al.
Science. 2013 Feb 1; 339(6119):580-4. PMID: 23372014. Abstract
Study metadata (ISA-Tab: