Purpose: The finding of melanoma cells in the peripheral blood, thus far mainly inferred from the PCR-based demonstration of tyrosinase mRNA, has been associated with metastatic melanoma. Neither the malignant nature nor the prognostic significance of circulating cells could be established. To address this question, we analyzed immunomagnetically isolated circulating melanoma cells for chromosomal aberrations and performed a clinical follow-up study of the enrolled patients.
Experimental design: In a prospective study, blood samples were taken from 164 melanoma patients and 50 donors without malignant disease. Circulating melanoma cells were enriched by immunomagnetic cell sorting using a murine monoclonal antibody against the melanoma-associated chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan. To prove the malignant origin of the positive cells and to define their chromosomal aberrations, we analyzed the genomes of 15 individually isolated cells from seven patients by single-cell comparative genomic hybridization (SCOMP).
Results: Absolute and relative frequencies of circulating melanoma cells were associated with stage and with the presence or absence of detectable tumor. The detection of two or more cells correlated significantly with a reduced survival of patients with metastatic melanoma. All of the cells that were analyzed by SCOMP displayed multiple chromosomal changes and carried aberrations typical for melanoma.
Conclusions: Immunomagnetic enrichment enables isolation and genomic characterization of circulating melanoma cells. The prognostic impact on survival of metastatic patients apparently reflects the aggressiveness of an ongoing tumor spread. Direct genomic analysis of the enriched and isolated cells will help to clarify the molecular-genetic basis of the establishment of generalized melanoma.