Current clinicopathologic staging systems and serum biomarkers poorly discriminate tumor biology in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), with high recurrence rates following curative-intent surgical resection and liver transplantation (LT). Identification of accurate biomarkers for improved prognostication and treatment selection is a critical unmet need. We sought to develop a novel "liquid-biopsy" assay capable of detecting HCC circulating tumor cells (CTCs) and characterizing phenotypic subpopulations with prognostic significance. Using HCC cell lines, a tissue microarray, and human blood samples, an antibody cocktail targeting the cell-surface markers asialoglycoprotein receptor (ASGPR), glypican-3, and epithelial cell adhesion molecule was optimized for HCC CTC capture using the NanoVelcro CTC Assay. The ability of HCC CTCs and vimentin (VIM)-positive CTCs (a subpopulation expressing an epithelial-to-mesenchymal phenotype) to accurately discriminate tumor stage, recurrence, progression, and overall survival (OS) was evaluated in a prospective study of 80 patients. Multimarker capture detected greater numbers of CTCs than any individual antibody alone for both cell line and patient samples (P < 0.001). HCC CTCs were identified in 59/61 (97%) patients, and HCC (median, 6 CTCs) and non-HCC patients (median, 1 CTC; area under the receiver operating characteristic curve [AUROC] = 0.92; P < 0.001; sensitivity = 84.2%; specificity = 88.5%) were accurately discriminated. VIM-positive CTCs accurately discriminated early-stage, LT eligible patients (median, 0 CTCs) from locally advanced/metastatic, LT ineligible patients (median, 6 CTCs; AUROC = 0.89; P = 0.001; sensitivity = 87.1%; specificity = 90.0%), and predicted OS for all patients (hazard ratio [HR], 2.21; P = 0.001), and faster recurrence after curative-intent surgical or locoregional therapy in potentially curable early-stage HCC (HR, 3.14; P = 0.002). In conclusion, we developed a novel multimarker CTC enrichment assay that detects HCC CTCs with high efficiency and accuracy. A phenotypic subpopulation of VIM-positive CTCs appears to signify the presence of aggressive underlying disease and occult metastases and may have important implications for treatment selection. Liver Transplantation 24 946-960 2018 AASLD.
© 2018 by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.