BACKGROUND: This study evaluates the specificity of some reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) assays for the detection of residual tumor cells in breast cancer patients. The following markers have been analysed: carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), cytokeratins (CK19 and CK20), polymorphic epithelial mucin (MUC-1), epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), maspin, and mammaglobin. RT-PCR was employed to detect breast cancer cells in peripheral blood (PB), bone marrow (BM), and stem cell leukoaphereses (PBPC). PATIENTS AND METHODS: We evaluated the specificity of our RT-PCR assays on a panel of breast cancer specimens (n = 30), on PBPC in patients undergoing high-dose chemotherapy (n = 38), on BM (n = 7) and PB (n = 5) samples obtained from patients with breast cancer. Marrow cells, PB, and PBPC from normal subjects or hematological tumor patients were tested as negative controls. RESULTS: Only maspin and mammaglobin met the criteria of sensitivity and specificity required for the detection of residual disease; they were expressed in 80% and 97% of breast cancer specimens, respectively, and not expressed in normal controls. CK19, CK20. EGFR, MUC-1, and CEA were sometimes expressed in normal blood cells and/or hematological tumors. CONCLUSIONS: Our data support the notion that maspin and mammaglobin are useful markers for RT-PCR detection of minimal residual disease (MRD) in breast cancer patients, and that perspective clinical studies are needed to determine wether RT-PCR assays will be useful in assessing prognosis, tailoring therapy, or developing new strategies for ex vivo purging.
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