Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is among the most common causes of cancer death in men. Whether or not a longitudinal follow-up of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) before and at different time points during systemic/targeted therapy is useful for monitoring the treatment response of patients with locally advanced or metastatic HCC has been evaluated in this study. Blood samples (n = 104) were obtained from patients with locally advanced or metastatic HCC (n = 30) for the enrichment of CTCs by a negative selection method. Analysis of the blood samples from patients with defined disease status (n = 81) revealed that those with progressive disease (PD, n = 37) had significantly higher CTC counts compared to those with a partial response (PR) or stable disease (SD; n = 44 for PR + SD, p = 0.0002). The median CTC count for patients with PD and for patients with PR and SD was 50 (interquartile range 21-139) and 15 (interquartile range 4-41) cells/mL of blood, respectively. A longitudinal analysis of patients (n = 17) after a series of blood collections demonstrated that a change in the CTC count correlated with the patient treatment response in most of the cases and was particularly useful for monitoring patients without elevated serum alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) levels. Sequential CTC enumeration during treatment can supplement standard medical tests and benefit the management of patients with locally advanced or metastatic HCC, in particular for the AFP-low cases.
Keywords: alpha-fetoprotein; circulating tumor cells; hepatocellular carcinoma; longitudinal follow-up.