Dynamic Glycoprotein Hyposialylation Promotes Chemotherapy Evasion and Metastatic Seeding of Quiescent Circulating Tumor Cell Clusters in Breast Cancer

Cancer Discov. 2023 Sep 6;13(9):2050-2071. doi: 10.1158/2159-8290.CD-22-0644.


Most circulating tumor cells (CTC) are detected as single cells, whereas a small proportion of CTCs in multicellular clusters with stemness properties possess 20- to 100-times higher metastatic propensity than the single cells. Here we report that CTC dynamics in both singles and clusters in response to therapies predict overall survival for breast cancer. Chemotherapy-evasive CTC clusters are relatively quiescent with a specific loss of ST6GAL1-catalyzed α2,6-sialylation in glycoproteins. Dynamic hyposialylation in CTCs or deficiency of ST6GAL1 promotes cluster formation for metastatic seeding and enables cellular quiescence to evade paclitaxel treatment in breast cancer. Glycoproteomic analysis reveals newly identified protein substrates of ST6GAL1, such as adhesion or stemness markers PODXL, ICAM1, ECE1, ALCAM1, CD97, and CD44, contributing to CTC clustering (aggregation) and metastatic seeding. As a proof of concept, neutralizing antibodies against one newly identified contributor, PODXL, inhibit CTC cluster formation and lung metastasis associated with paclitaxel treatment for triple-negative breast cancer.

Significance: This study discovers that dynamic loss of terminal sialylation in glycoproteins of CTC clusters contributes to the fate of cellular dormancy, advantageous evasion to chemotherapy, and enhanced metastatic seeding. It identifies PODXL as a glycoprotein substrate of ST6GAL1 and a candidate target to counter chemoevasion-associated metastasis of quiescent tumor cells. This article is featured in Selected Articles from This Issue, p. 1949.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Breast Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Female
  • Glycoproteins
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating* / metabolism
  • Paclitaxel / therapeutic use
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms*


  • Paclitaxel
  • Glycoproteins
  • Biomarkers, Tumor