Lyudmila Bazhenova and Peter Kuhn contributed equally to this work
Supplementary information accompanies this paper at https://doi.org/10.1186/s12967-019-2035-8.
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Monitoring circulating tumor cells (CTC) has been shown to be prognostic in most solid malignancies. There is no CTC assay in clinical use for lung cancer therapy monitoring due to inconclusive clinical utility data. Limited data has been published outside of the standard CTC enumerations, regarding clinical significance of phenotypic heterogeneity of CTCs in late stage NSCLC and its ability to correlate with treatment outcomes.
In 81 patients with stage IV NSCLC, multiple timepoints for CTC analysis were collected after initiation of treatment across 139 lines of therapy using single cell high definition diagnostic pathology imaging of all nucleated cells from 362 peripheral blood samples as a liquid biopsy.
We analyzed the subset of 25 patients with complete time series data, totaling 117 blood samples, to determine the significance of HD-CTC kinetics during the initiation of treatment. These kinetics follow three distinct patterns: an increase in HD-CTCs with therapy (mean + 118.40 HD-CTCs/mL), unchanged HD-CTCs numbers (stable; mean 0.54 HD-CTCs/mL), and a decrease in HD-CTCs numbers (mean − 81.40 HD-CTCs/mL). Patients with an increasing CTC count during the first 3 months post initiation of new treatment had a better PFS and OS compared to the other groups. There was weak correlation between the absolute number of HD-CTCs at a single time point of therapy and patient outcomes (OS p value = 0.0754). In the whole cohort of 81 patients, HD-CTCs were detected in 51 (63%) patients at initiation of therapy with a median of 2.20 (range 0–509.20) and a mean of 26.21 HD-CTCs/mL (± 15.64).
CTCs are identifiable in most patients with stage IV NSCLC. While absolute HD-CTC counts do not correlate with prognosis, the changes in CTC counts were predictive of survival in patients with metastatic lung cancer receiving chemotherapy. The level and dynamics of CTCs indicate very different biological and pharmacological phenomena at different stages of disease and timepoints of treatment, highlighting the complex role of CTCs in cancer research and clinical management.