Introduction: The detection of peripheral blood circulating tumor cells (CTCs) and bone marrow disseminated tumor cells (DTCs) in breast cancer patients is associated with a high incidence of disease relapse and disease-related death. Since hypoxia-inducible factor-1alpha (HIF-1alpha) and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) play an important role in angiogenesis and tumor progression, the purpose of the current study was to investigate their expression in CTCs.
Methods: The expression of cytokeratins (CK), VEGF, vascular endothelial growth factor receptor-2 (VEGF2), HIF-1alpha and phosphorylated-focal adhesion kinase (pFAK) in CTCs from 34 patients with metastatic breast cancer who had detectable CK-19 mRNA-positive CTCs was assessed using double staining experiments and confocal laser scanning microscopy. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) were stained with a monoclonal A45-B/B3 pancytokeratin antibody in combination with either VEGF or VEGFR2 or HIF-1alpha or pFAK antibodies, respectively.
Results: pFAK expression in circulating tumor cells was detected in 92% of patients whereas expression of VEGF, VEGF2 and HIF-1alpha was observed in 62%, 47% and 76% of patients, respectively. VEGF, VEGF2, HIF-1alpha and pFAK were expressed in 73%, 71%, 56% and 81%, respectively, of all the detected CTCs. Vascular endothelial growth mRNA was also detected by quantitative real-time RT-PCR in immunomagnetically-separated CTCs. Double and triple staining experiments in cytospins of immunomagnetically-isolated CTCs showed that VEGF co-expressed with HIF-1alpha and VEGF2.
Conclusions: The expression of pFAK, HIF-1alpha, VEGF and VEGF2 in CTCs of patients with metastatic breast cancer could explain the metastatic potential of these cells and may provide a therapeutic target for their elimination.