Circulating Tumor Cells Undergoing the Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition: Influence on Prognosis in Cytokeratin 19-Positive Hepatocellular Carcinoma

Onco Targets Ther. 2021 Mar 2;14:1543-1552. doi: 10.2147/OTT.S298576. eCollection 2021.


Purpose: The purpose of this study was to elucidate the relationship between cytokeratin 19 (CK19) expression and levels of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in preoperative peripheral blood of patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), and the potential influence of that relationship on prognosis.

Patients and methods: CanPatrol™ CTC-enrichment technique and in situ hybridization (ISH) were used to enrich and classify CTCs undergoing the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) from blood samples of 105 HCC patients. CK19 immunohistochemistry staining was performed on HCC tissues and compared with demographic and clinical data.

Results: In total, 27 of 105 (25.7%) HCC patients were CK19-positive. CK19-positive patients had significantly lower median tumor-free survival (TFS) than CK19-negative patients (5 vs 10 months, P = 0.047). In total, 98 (93.3%) patients showed pre-surgery peripheral blood CTCs (range: 0-76, median: 6), and 57 of 105 (54.3%) patients displayed CTC counts ≥6. Furthermore, CK19-positive patients with CTC count ≥6 showed significantly higher percentage than CK19-negative ones (77.8% vs 46.2%, P = 0.004). CK19-positive patients showed a significantly higher proportion of mesenchymal CTCs among CTCs undergoing EMT than CK19-negative patients (mean rank: 62.28 vs 49.79, P = 0.046). We also found that CK19-positive patients with high CTC count showed significantly shorter median tumor-free survival than CK19-negative patients with low CTC count (5 vs 16 months, P = 0.039).

Conclusion: High CTC count and high percentage of mesenchymal CTCs are closely related to the expression of CK19, which is associated with poor prognosis in HCC patients.

Keywords: circulating tumor cells; cytokeratin 19; hepatocellular carcinoma; prognosis; tumor-free survival.