BACKGROUND: Application of the reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) to identification of circulating tumour cells in colorectal cancer. AIMS: To assess whether circulating malignant cells in patients with colorectal liver metastasis could be identified by RT-PCR recognition of mRNA coding for the tumour marker carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA). PATIENTS: A total of 31 with colorectal liver metastases and 22 no-cancer controls. METHODS: Specific cDNA primers for CEA transcripts were used to apply RT-PCR to tissue biopsy specimens, colon carcinoma cell lines, and peripheral blood samples from patients with colorectal liver metastases. A strongly CEA-expressive HT115 colorectal carcinoma cell line was used to spike blood samples from no-cancer control subjects. RESULTS: The limit for detection of CEA cDNA by Southern blotting using HT115 cells was 50 cells per 14 ml of spiked blood. There was a significant difference (p = 0.007) in RT-PCR positive expression between patients with liver metastasis (26/31) compared with controls (5/22). There was no significant relation between the prevalence of CEA cDNA amplification and serum CEA level or metastasis volume in patients with liver metastasis. CONCLUSIONS: This is the first study to suggest that identification of circulating colorectal cancer cells using RT-PCR for detection of CEA cDNA is feasible.
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