Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) might not only serve as prognostic marker but could also be useful for monitoring treatment efficacy. A multicolor flow cytometry protocol for their detection and molecular characterization in peripheral blood was developed which consisted of erythrocyte lysis followed by staining of cells with fluorochrome-labeled antibodies against CD45 and the epithelial markers EpCam and cytokeratin 7/8. For reducing the number of events acquired by flow cytometry, an electronic threshold for the fluorescent signals from the epithelial markers was applied. After establishment of the protocol by using spiking experiments, its suitability to determine the absolute number of CTCs as well as their expression of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and its phosphorylated form (phospho-EGFR) in blood samples from patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) was validated. Spiking experiments demonstrated an excellent recovery (mean 85%) and a linear performance (R(2) = 0.98) of the protocol. Sensitivity and specificity were comparable to our former protocol using immunomagnetic CTC pre-enrichment. The analysis of 33 SCCHN patient samples revealed the presence of CTCs in 33.3% of cases with a mean ± SD of 1.5 ± 0.5 CTCs per 3.75 ml blood. EGFR was expressed in 100% and phospho-EGFR in 36.4% of the CTC+ cases. We have established a simple and sensitive multicolor flow cytometry protocol for detection of CTCs in patients with epithelial cancers including SCCHN which will allow their detailed molecular characterization.
Copyright © 2012 International Society for Advancement of Cytometry.