Background: Approximately 20%-45% of colorectal cancer (CRC) patients ultimately develop local recurrence or metastasis following curative surgical resection. The latter is caused by tumor cells shed from the primary carcinoma prior to or during operation, currently undetected by standard clinical staging. Fortunately, the presence of tumor cells in peripheral blood can be detected by molecular methods and is being regarded increasingly as a clinically relevant prognostic factor.
Materials and methods: To detect the presence of circulating tumor cells and evaluate their relationship to postoperative metastatic relapse, we simultaneously examined human telomerase reverse transcriptase (hTERT), cytokeratin-19 (CK-19), cytokeratin-20 (CK-20), and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) mRNA (messenger RNA) in the peripheral blood of 72 CRC patients and 30 healthy individuals. Using a reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), these tumor-related mRNAs were amplified; in addition, analyses were carried out for their correlation with patients' clinicopathologic features, as well as the occurrence of postoperative metastasis.
Results: In RT-PCR analysis of the peripheral blood, 69.4% (50 out of 72), 66.7% (48 out of 72), 52.8% (38 out of 72), and 72.2% (52 out of 72) of CRC patients were positive for hTERT, CK-19, CK-20, and CEA mRNA respectively. All 30 healthy individuals were negative for hTERT and CEA mRNA expression, while 2 were positive for either CK-19 mRNA or CK-20 mRNA expression. The detection of CEA mRNA was significantly correlated with depth of tumor invasion (P=0.012), vessel invasion (P=0.035), TNM stage (P<0.0001), and postoperative metastasis (P<0.0001), while positive hTERT mRNA was correlated with TNM stage (P=0.037) and CK-19 was correlated with depth of tumor invasion (P=0.039) and postoperative metastasis (P=0.017). In addition, multivariate logistic regression showed that only CEA mRNA was an independent and significant predictor of postoperative metastasis (P=0.006). Our findings suggest that CEA mRNA may be a more reliable marker than hTERT, CK-19, and CK-20 for the detection of circulating cancer cells in the peripheral blood of CRC patients.
Conclusions: Using RT-PCR for the detection of CEA mRNA is feasible and may be a promising tool for early detection of micrometastatic circulating tumor cells in CRC patients. CRC patients expressing positive CEA mRNA in peripheral blood have a significantly higher risk of postoperative metastasis. Nevertheless, confirmation of CEA mRNA as a prognostic predictive factor requires the continuation of patient follow-up.