Due to the advance in technologies for rare cell isolation, circulating tumor cells (CTC) have recently received vast interest. During tumor progression tumor cells invade the primary tumor microenvironment and intravasate into blood vessels, where they are referred as CTCs. These CTCs disseminate to other organs and a subset of these cells will be able to form metastasis. The growing interest for CTC is confronted with the difficulty associated with their isolation and characterization. To address this challenge, our lab has recently optimized the ex vivo culture condition and was able to establish CTC lines from breast cancer patients. These CTC lines constitute a unique cell population in the metastatic process and gave us a rare opportunity to investigate the signal pathways involved in each step of the metastatic cascade. To assess the metastatic potential of breast cancer patient-derived CTC lines we utilized an experimental mouse model for metastasis by injecting CTCs directly into the left ventricle of the heart in female immuodeficient NSG mice. The ability of 4 CTC lines to arrest and colonize in organ was monitored by bioluminescence imaging once every 2 weeks for 5 months. CTC lines were capable of generating brain, lung, bone and ovary metastases. Most of those organs are common sites of metastases in breast cancer patients. Two patient-derived CTC lines have a high metastatic potential (over 80% of mice had metastases after 3 months) with generation of simultaneous metastases in multiple organs such as bone, lung and Ovary. These mice remained brain-metastases free for up to 8 months. However, two other patient-derived CTC lines demonstrated the brain as preferential site of metastasis despite their overall low metastatic potential. Interestingly, of 4 breast cancer patients where CTC lines were generated, one developed a metastatic brain tumor and her CTC line has the highest risk of brain metastases in our mouse model. We further investigated genetic and epigenetic determinants that regulate the organotropism of CTCs. We isolated metastatic variants corresponding to a subpopulation of CTCs with a preferential tropism for the brain, lung and bone. Gene expression analysis (RNA-seq) of these variants identified potential gene signatures of breast cancer metastasis. The pathways with the highest enrichment scores were glioblastoma multiform, ceramide biosynthesis and PCP pathway for the brain metastatic variants and were interferon and mTOR signaling for the lung metastatic variants. Next we used a method for assaying chromatin accessibility (ATAC-seq) and identified potential regulatory regions mediating the organ tropism in breast cancer. Together our data provide the evidence of a promising role of CTC as an early prognostic factor in metastasis. Additionally, we expect to develop novel organ tropism associated markers, which can be considered for potential therapeutic targets in breast cancers.

Citation Format: Remi Klotz, Thomas Amal, Alan Wang, Matthew Mackay, Kathleen Heller, Lin Li, Maxwell Serowoky, Grace Lee, Jane Han, Andrew Smith, Min Yu. Understanding breast cancer metastasis through circulating tumor cells [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2017; 2017 Apr 1-5; Washington, DC. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2017;77(13 Suppl):Abstract nr 1045. doi:10.1158/1538-7445.AM2017-1045