The epithelial cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM) is involved in homophilic cell-cell adhesion in normal epithelia and is frequently overexpressed in primary and metastatic adenocarcinomas. It has been postulated that during detachment and dissemination of tumor cells, EpCAM may be down-regulated. Circulating tumor cells (CTC) may demonstrate this phenomenon as they have successfully escaped their local microenvironment and entered the circulation. EpCAM expression of CTC was compared to tumor cells in paraffin-embedded tissue arrays containing various benign diseases and carcinomas. EpCAM expression on CTC was determined by flow cytometry (FCM) and by immunohistochemistry (IHC) in paraffin-embedded tissue. To permit comparison of FCM results to those derived by IHC, EpCAM was quantified on cancer cell lines by FCM and then paraffin-embedded cell-blocks of these lines were used as staining guides for IHC analysis of tissue arrays. By IHC, 97% (384/397) of solid tissues analyzed had detectable EpCAM, with 72% of tissues showing antigen expression levels of > or =400,000 EpCAM molecules per cell. FCM analysis of CTC from 100 metastatic carcinoma patients with > or =2 CTC/90 microl blood showed EpCAM expression ranging from 9,900 to 246,000 (mean 49,700) antigens per cell. EpCAM expression was approximately 10-fold lower on CTC as compared to primary and metastatic tissues, suggesting that EpCAM expression is transient and dependent upon the local micro-environment. This supports the hypothesis that this adhesion molecule is down-regulated on carcinoma cells in the circulation.