The presence of circulating total DNA and methylated genes is associated with circulating tumour cells in blood from breast cancer patients

Br J Cancer. 2009 Apr 21;100(8):1277-86. doi: 10.1038/sj.bjc.6605013.


Circulating tumour cells (CTC) and tumour-related methylated DNA in blood have been separately assessed for their utility as a marker for subclinical metastasis in breast cancer. However, no studies have looked into the relation between the both molecular markers in this type of cancer. In this study, we investigated the correlations between total/methylated DNA and CTC in the blood from metastatic breast cancer patients. We simultaneously obtained whole blood, plasma and serum samples from 80 patients and 20 controls. The CellSearch System was used to enumerate CTC in blood samples. Plasma total DNA levels were determined by a QPCR method. Sera were analysed by methylation-specific QPCR for three markers: adenomatous polyposis coli (APC), ras association domain family protein 1A (RASSF1A) and oestrogen receptor 1 (ESR1). Total DNA levels in patients were significantly increased when compared with controls (P<0.001) and correlated with the number of CTC (r=0.418, P<0.001). Hypermethylation of one or more genes was detected in 42 (53%) serum samples from breast cancer patients and in three (16%) serum samples from controls (P=0.003). APC was hypermethylated in 29%, RASSF1A in 35% and ESR1 in 20% of breast cancer cases. Detection of a methylated gene in serum was associated with the detection of CTC in blood (P=0.03). The detection of large amounts of circulating total/methylated DNA correlated with the presence of CTC in the blood from patients with breast cancer. This can be interpreted in two ways: (a) CTC are a potential source of circulating tumour-specific DNA; (b) high numbers of CTC and circulating methylated DNA are both a phenotypic feature of more aggressive tumour biology.

MeSH terms

  • Adenomatous Polyposis Coli / genetics
  • Breast Neoplasms / blood
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics*
  • DNA / blood
  • DNA Methylation* / genetics
  • DNA, Neoplasm / blood*
  • DNA, Neoplasm / genetics*
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha / genetics
  • Female
  • Genes, p53
  • Humans
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / genetics
  • Receptors, Estrogen / genetics
  • Receptors, Progesterone / genetics
  • Reference Values
  • Tumor Suppressor Proteins / genetics


  • DNA, Neoplasm
  • Estrogen Receptor alpha
  • RASSF1 protein, human
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Receptors, Progesterone
  • Tumor Suppressor Proteins
  • DNA
  • Receptor, ErbB-2