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Circulating Breast Tumor Cells Exhibit Dynamic Changes in Epithelial and Mesenchymal Composition

Science  01 Feb 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6119, pp. 580-584
DOI: 10.1126/science.1228522

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Cells in Transit(ion)

Epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) is a developmental program that converts adherent epithelial cells to a migratory mesenchymal state. This cell-fate change has been linked to tumor metastasis in preclinical models. To investigate whether EMT occurs in human cancer, Yu et al. (p. 580) isolated circulating tumor cells (CTCs) from breast cancer patients and analyzed their expression of epithelial and mesenchymal markers by RNA–in situ hybridization and RNA sequencing. Biphenotypic cells expressing both types of markers were rare in primary breast tumors but were enriched among CTCs, as were cells expressing only mesenchymal markers. Serial blood samples from one patient revealed that CTCs in the mesenchymal state declined in number when the patient responded to therapy but rebounded when the disease began to progress—a pattern repeated when a different therapy was administered. Thus, EMT may facilitate tumor cell dissemination in humans.

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