The assessment of tumor molecular features in combination with the detection of occult malignant cells may provide important clinical information, beyond the standard staging of breast cancer. Using a nested RT-PCR technique, we assessed prospectively the presence of cytokeratin-19 (CK19) mRNA positive cells in the blood of 100 operated patients with breast cancer before the initiation of adjuvant chemotherapy and local radiotherapy. Tissue samples were prospectively collected and analyzed for estrogen (ER) and progesterone (PgR) receptor, c-erbB-2 overexpression, mutant-p53 and bcl-2 protein accumulation, proliferation index and microvessel density (MVD). CK-19 mRNA-positive cells were detected in the peripheral blood of 33% of patients. Simultaneous display of high intratumoral MVD and of CK-19 mRNA-positive cells, which characterized highly angiogenic and disseminated in the peripheral blood (HAD) disease was noted in 25% of patients. Detection of CK-19 positive cells was significantly associated with increased MVD (p = 0.002). In univariate analysis (median follow-up 30 months) CK19 mRNA detection and MVD were the most significant factors related to a short relapse-free survival (RFS), (p < 0.0001). In multivariate analysis, CK19 positivity, high MVD and c-erbB-2 overexpression were the only significant and independent variables associated with relapse (p = 0.0005, 0.03 and 0.04, respectively). Patients with HAD had an expected relapse rate close to 70% vs. <5% in the remaining patients irrespectively of the used chemotherapy regimen. The simultaneous presence of high MVD and CK19-positive cells in the blood of patients with early breast is linked with poor prognosis, which cannot be improved with standard chemotherapy regimens.
Copyright 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.