There is an unmet need to identify biomarkers that directly reflect response to adjuvant radiotherapy (RT). Circulating epithelial tumor cells (CETCs) represent the liquid component of solid tumors and are responsible for metastatic relapse. CETC subsets with cancer stem cell characteristics, circulating cancer stem cells (cCSCs), play a pivotal role in the metastatic cascade. Monitoring the most aggressive subpopulation of CETCs could reflect the aggressiveness of the remaining tumor burden. There is limited data on the detection and monitoring changes in CETC and cCSC numbers during RT in early breast cancer.
CETC numbers were analyzed prior to, at midterm and at the end of RT in 52 primary non-metastatic breast cancer patients. Hormone receptor status was determined in CETCs prior to and at the end of RT. For the identification of cCSCs cell suspensions from the peripheral blood of patients were cultured in vitro under conditions favoring growth of tumorspheres.
Hormone receptor status in CETCs before RT was comparable to that in primary tumor tissue. Prior to RT numbers of CETCs correlated with aggressiveness of primary tumors. cCSCs could be successfully identified and monitored during RT. Prior to RT patients treated with neoadjuvant chemotherapy had significantly higher numbers of CETCs and tumorspheres compared to patients after adjuvant chemotherapy. During RT, the number of CETCs decreased continuously in patients after neoadjuvant chemotherapy but not after adjuvant chemotherapy.
Monitoring the number of CETCs and the CETC subset with cancer stem cell properties during RT may provide additional clinically useful prognostic information.

Copyright © 2021 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.