Background: Breast cancer is a highly prevalent disease among women worldwide. While the expression of certain proteins within breast cancer tumors is used to determine the prognosis and select therapies, additional markers need to be identified. Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) are constituent cells that have detached from a primary tumor to circulate in the bloodstream. CTCs are considered the main source of breast cancer metastases; therefore, detection of CTCs could be a promising diagnostic method for metastatic breast cancer. Methods: In this study, the CircleGen CTC RT-qDx assay was used to analyze the mRNA expression levels of six CTC-specific markers including EpCAM, CK19, HER2, Ki67, hTERT, and vimentin with a total of 692 peripheral whole blood samples from 221 breast cancer patients and 376 healthy individuals. Results: This assay showed high specificity with multiple markers; none of the healthy controls were detected positive, whereas 21.7 and 14 % of breast cancer patients were positive for EpCAM and CK19, respectively. Of the 221 breast cancer patients, 84 (38 %), 46 (20.8 %), 83 (37.6 %), and 39 (17.6 %) were positively for HER2, Ki67, hTERT, and vimentin mRNA, respectively. Of the 84 patients who were HER2 positive, nine (4 %) were also positive for EpCAM, CK19, Ki67, hTERT, and vimentin. Of the 139 breast cancer patients who were HER2 negative, 65 (29.1 %) were negative for EpCAM, CK19, Ki67, hTERT, and vimentin. Furthermore, the EpCAM-positive population decreased from 21.5 to 8.3 % after completion of anti-tumor treatment (TP4). Similarly, the CK19, HER2, hTERT, and vimentin positives also decreased from 13.9 to 9.5 %, from 37.7 to 21.4 %, from 37.2 to 33.3 %, and from 17.5 to 14.3 %, respectively, after completion of anti-tumor treatment. In contrast, the Ki67 positives increased from 20.6 to 41.7 % after completion of anti-tumor treatment. Conclusions: mRNA overexpression of six CTC-specific markers was detected by the CircleGen CTC RT-qDx assay with high specificity, and the obtained mRNA expression levels of CTC-specific markers might provide useful criteria to select appropriate anti-tumor treatment for breast cancer patients.
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