Purpose: To determine the prognostic significance of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in patients with neuroendocrine cancer.
Patients and methods: In this single-center prospective study, 176 patients with measurable metastatic neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) were recruited. CTCs were measured using a semiautomated technique based on immunomagnetic separation of epithelial cell adhesion molecule-expressing cells.
Results: Overall, 49% patients had ≥ one CTC, 42% had ≥ two CTCs, and 30% had ≥ five CTCs in 7.5 mL blood. Presence of CTCs was associated with increased burden, increased tumor grade, and elevated serum chromogranin A (CgA). Using a 90-patient training set and 85-patient validation set, we defined a cutoff of < one or ≥ one as the optimal prognostic threshold with respect to progression-free survival (PFS). Applying this threshold, the presence of ≥ one CTC was associated with worse PFS and overall survival (OS; hazard ratios [HRs], 6.6 and 8.0, respectively; both P < .001). In multivariate analysis, CTCs remained significant when other prognostic markers, grade, tumor burden, and CgA were included. Within grades, presence of CTCs was able to define a poor prognostic subgroup. For grade 1, HRs were 5.0 for PFS (P = .017) and 7.2 for OS (P = .023); for grade 2, HRs were 3.5 for PFS (P = .018) and 5.2 for OS (P = .036).
Conclusion: CTCs are a promising prognostic marker for patients with NETs and should be assessed in the context of clinical trials with defined tumor subtypes and therapy.