Background: The mechanisms regulating tumor cell dissemination in locally advanced squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck region (SCCHN) are largely unresolved. We assessed the frequency of circulating tumor cells (CTCs), their association with clinicopathologic parameters and their kinetics during radiochemotherapy.
Patients and methods: Peripheral blood samples from 42 patients with locally advanced SCCHN were included. CTCs were detected using flow cytometric analysis of CD45-epithelial cell adhesion molecule+cytokeratin+ cells and results were validated by nested RT-PCR analysis of circulating epidermal growth factor receptor transcripts. The association between the presence of CTCs and T stage, tumor volume, N stage and human papillomavirus status was evaluated. The influence of radiochemotherapy on CTC numbers was determined.
Results: CTCs were detected in 18 of 42 SCCHN patients (43%), with a mean ± standard deviation of 1.7 ± 0.9 CTCs per 3.75 ml blood. We observed no significant correlation between the presence of CTCs and T stage or tumor volume. However, a nodal stage of N2b or higher was associated with higher frequency of CTCs. Though concurrent radiochemotherapy reduced their frequency, CTCs persisted during treatment in 20% of cases.
Conclusions: Detection of CTCs correlates with regional metastasis in inoperable SCCHN. Further follow-up is needed to evaluate the prognostic significance of CTC detection, in addition to clinical staging of lymph nodes, for regional or distant recurrence.