PURPOSE: Microphthalmia transcription factor (Mitf), which is important in melanocyte development and melanoma growth, was assessed using real-time quantitative reverse transcription-PCR assay to investigate its expression as a marker for circulating melanoma cells in blood and determine the correlation with disease stage and survival in melanoma patients. EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN: In optimization studies for Mitf, we tested 15 melanoma cell lines, 41 peripheral blood lymphocytes from healthy volunteers, and 21 metastatic melanoma tissues. Blood specimens were procured from 90 patients with stage I (n = 20), stage II (n = 20), stage III (n = 28), and stage IV (n = 22) melanoma. Blood specimens were also obtained at four bleed intervals from 58 patients enrolled in a prospective multicenter trial of biochemotherapy before and after surgical treatment of American Joint Committee on Cancer stage III melanoma. RESULTS: Under the optimized conditions, Mitf was negative in healthy peripheral blood lymphocytes and positive in all melanoma cell lines and 18 (86%) melanoma tissues. In the 90 patients, the rate of Mitf detection was higher with increasing American Joint Committee on Cancer stage (P < 0.0001). In the 58 patients treated with biochemotherapy and surgery, Mitf detection decreased with treatment (P = 0.019). Mitf detection after treatment was associated with a significantly lower relapse-free (P < 0.0001) and overall (P = 0.001) survival and was a significant independent prognostic factor for relapse-free (risk ratio, 5.63; P = 0.0004) and overall (risk ratio, 5.36; P = 0.005) survival. CONCLUSIONS: Mitf detection in blood can indicate subclinical metastatic disease and predict treatment outcome in melanoma patients.

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