Purpose: We adopted a new strategy to explore the relationship between the EMT process of CTCs and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Furthermore, we intend to illustrate the potential diagnostic value of CTCs of distinct phenotypes in HCC.
Methods: The clinical data of 33 HCC patients and 10 healthy volunteers were collected retrospectively. By using the optimized CanPatrol CTC enrichment technique, patient blood samples of about 5 ml were collected, and CTCs were identified and characterized. The first step of this detection process was to isolate CTCs via a filter-based method; then, an RNA in situ hybridization (RNA-ISH) technique based on the branched DNA signal amplification technology was used to classify the CTCs according to EMT markers. The relationships between HCC CTCs and clinical characteristics were analyzed.
Results: The number of epithelial CTCs was related to tumor size (r = 0.456, p = 0.008), epithelial-mesenchymal-mixed CTCs were related to tumor number (r = 0.421, p = 0.015), and mesenchymal CTC was associated with metastasis (r = 0.375, p = 0.032). There was no significant correlation between CTC number and other clinicopathological factors, such as age, serum AFP level or cirrhosis.
Conclusions: Epithelial-mesenchymal-mixed CTCs seem to play an important role in EMT transition in HCC, mixed CTCs might be a vital factor for intrahepatic metastasis, and mesenchymal CTCs had the potential to be a predictor of extrahepatic metastasis.
Keywords: Circulating tumor cells; Epithelial-mesenchymal transition; Hepatocellular carcinoma; Metastasis.