The relationship between the disease course and the prognostic relevance of sequential tyrosinase reverse transcription-PCR assay in the peripheral blood of advanced metastatic melanoma patients was ascertained. The clinical usefulness of tyrosinase in stage IV melanoma patients is still debated, owing to the wide range of variability (positive expression from 30 up to 100% of patients) and the possibility of a transient shedding of melanoma cells into the bloodstream. A total of 200 consecutive stage IV metastatic patients treated at our department were included, 149 with active metastatic disease undergoing systemic therapies (group A), and 51 disease free after surgery (group B). For each patient, a baseline sample was obtained within 3 weeks of either the clinical/radiological demonstration of metastatic disease or the surgical treatment; thereafter, tyrosinase determinations were performed at day 1 of each therapy course before chemotherapy administration or at each follow-up visit. Tyrosinase expression was determined using standard reverse transcription-PCR nested techniques. A baseline positive determination was obtained in 72.5% of the patients with active metastatic disease (group A) but not in any of the patients who were disease free after surgery (group B). Therapy administration induced an early clearance of circulating melanoma cells, from 72.5 to 44.9% at the second down to 29.5% at the third determination. Tyrosinase expression before the third cycle was significantly associated with the clinical response: 56/81 (69.1%) patients with a negative tyrosinase determination obtained a response or a stable disease, whereas 29/34 (85.3%) patients with a positive test developed a progressive disease (P<0.001). A clinical response was observed in all the patients who had a negative tyrosinase at the first three determinations, although all patients whose first three determinations were positive developed a progressive disease. Multivariate analysis showed that baseline tyrosinase status carries an independent prognostic value on both overall survival and time to progression; moreover, tyrosinase results during follow-up were entered as time-dependent covariates in a multivariate analysis and were shown to be the most significant prognostic parameter associated to both overall survival and time to progression. In particular, the presence of a constant positive expression during follow-up was associated with the development of new metastatic sites in 95.6% of patients with active metastatic disease. Our results demonstrate that the discrepancies in the positive tyrosinase rates reported in the literature are related to the disease status at the time of sampling and to chemotherapy administration. Tyrosinase expression in the peripheral blood both at baseline and during follow-up can be considered a reliable prognostic parameter associated with the response to treatment, development of new metastatic sites, time to progression and survival.
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