Cell filtration-laser scanning cytometry for the characterisation of circulating breast cancer cells

Cytometry A. 2003 Oct;55(2):102-8. doi: 10.1002/cyto.a.10071.


Background: Epithelial cells may be detected in the circulation of the majority of patients with metastatic breast cancer. Quantification of such presumptive cancer cells might allow for the monitoring of patients with early or late stage disease as an early index of relapse. Additionally, biomarker analysis may allow a more rational approach to therapeutics. We have developed a new method for the detection and characterisation of these cells.

Methods: Blood was filtered through polycarbonate membranes containing cylindrical pores, 8 microm in diameter. All the red cells and a large majority of the white blood cells passed through the filter while the larger epithelial cells were trapped. Cells on the membrane were fixed in ethanol, stained with propidium iodide and anti-pan-cytokeratin-FITC (to identify epithelial cells). The filters were then examined by laser scanning cytometry (LSC), which allowed enumeration and localisation of cells.

Results: With normal blood spiked with cells from breast carcinoma cell lines, 99.9% of the leukocytes passed through the membrane, while close to 100% of the epithelial cells were trapped, with a detection limit of less than one epithelial cell/ml of blood. All of 20 samples from patients with widespread metastatic disease contained cytokeratin-positive cells with the morphological characteristics of carcinoma cells, the number of cells ranging from 0.2 to 5.7/ml of blood.

Conclusions: Cell filtration-LSC is a viable technique for detecting and studying breast carcinoma cells in peripheral blood.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / blood*
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Separation / methods*
  • Epithelial Cells / pathology
  • Female
  • Filtration
  • Humans
  • Image Cytometry / instrumentation
  • Image Cytometry / methods*
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Immunomagnetic Separation / methods
  • Keratins / analysis
  • Lasers
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating / chemistry
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating / pathology*
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured


  • Keratins