Epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) was shown to enhance metastatic abilities of cancer cells, but it remains elusive in clinical samples. Moreover, EMT is rarely studied in lymph node metastases (LNM), thus limiting our understanding of its role outside of the primary tumors (PT). We collected a set of samples including triplets - PT, circulating tumor cells (CTCs)-enriched blood samples and LNM from 108 early breast cancer patients. With immunohistochemistry we analyzed levels of EMT effectors - E-cadherin, vimentin and N-cadherin in LNM, central areas and margins of PT. Additionally, expression of EMT core regulators TWIST1, SNAI1, SNAI2 was measured with RT-qPCR. Patients with E-cadherin loss had CTCs in 45% of the cases in comparison to 23% with normal E-cadherin level (P = 0.05). Mesenchymal phenotype of CTCs-enriched blood fractions was five-times more frequent in patients with E-cadherin loss in PT compared to PT with normal E-cadherin levels (P = 0.01). Epithelial/mesenchymal status of matched samples at different stages of dissemination was frequently discordant, especially for pairs involving CTCs, indicating high plasticity of tumor cells. LNM showed increased expression of TWIST1, SNAI1, SNAI2 accompanied by decreased Ki67 labeling index, with median Ki67 of 15% in PT and 10% in LNM (P = 0.0002). Our findings demonstrate that E-cadherin loss, not only in PT margin, might lead to seeding of especially malignant CTCs with mesenchymal phenotype. In comparison to PT, cells in LNM re-express E-cadherin, upregulate EMT transcription factors and reduce cell division rate, which could be viewed as their long-term survival strategy.
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