Circulating Tumor Cell Transcriptomics as Biopsy Surrogates in Metastatic Breast Cancer

Ann Surg Oncol. 2022 May;29(5):2882-2894. doi: 10.1245/s10434-021-11135-2. Epub 2022 Jan 9.


Background: Metastatic breast cancer (MBC) and the circulating tumor cells (CTCs) leading to macrometastases are inherently different than primary breast cancer. We evaluated whether whole transcriptome RNA-Seq of CTCs isolated via an epitope-independent approach may serve as a surrogate for biopsies of macrometastases.

Methods: We performed RNA-Seq on fresh metastatic tumor biopsies, CTCs, and peripheral blood (PB) from 19 newly diagnosed MBC patients. CTCs were harvested using the ANGLE Parsortix microfluidics system to isolate cells based on size and deformability, independent of a priori knowledge of cell surface marker expression.

Results: Gene expression separated CTCs, metastatic biopsies, and PB into distinct groups despite heterogeneity between patients and sample types. CTCs showed higher expression of immune oncology targets compared with corresponding metastases and PB. Predictive biomarker (n = 64) expression was highly concordant for CTCs and metastases. Repeat observation data post-treatment demonstrated changes in the activation of different biological pathways. Somatic single nucleotide variant analysis showed increasing mutational complexity over time.

Conclusion: We demonstrate that RNA-Seq of CTCs could serve as a surrogate biomarker for breast cancer macrometastasis and yield clinically relevant insights into disease biology and clinically actionable targets.

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor / metabolism
  • Biopsy
  • Breast Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating* / pathology
  • Transcriptome


  • Biomarkers, Tumor