Distribution and clinical significance of circulating tumor cells in nasopharyngeal carcinoma

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Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is one of the leading malignancies with obscure etiology. Circulating tumor cells have been showed to intimately correlate with characteristics in different kinds of cancer. But links between circulating tumor cells and nasopharyngeal carcinoma were still lacking. Therefore, we explored circulating tumor cells’ distribution in nasopharyngeal carcinoma and their possible associations with nasopharyngeal carcinoma.


Firstly, we found that the positive ratio of circulating tumor cells is extremely high in four stages of nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Meanwhile, positive ratios of mesenchymal circulating tumor cells were higher in early stages of nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Apart from epithelial circulating tumor cells, total, hybrid and mesenchymal circulating tumor cells were correlated with nasopharyngeal carcinoma clinical stage.


Our results showed that hybrid and mesenchymal circulating tumor cells were associated with nasopharyngeal carcinoma metastasis (both distant and lymph node) and smoking. Meanwhile, hybrid circulating tumor cells expressed the highest Epstein–Barr virus proteins and deoxyribonucleic acid in three types of circulating tumor cells. Moreover, we found that Epstein–Barr virus proteins viral-caspid antigen-immunoglobulin A (VCA/IgA) and early antigen-immunoglobulin A (EA/IgA), but not Epstein–Barr virus-deoxyribonucleic acid, had a closed association with nasopharyngeal carcinoma metastasis. However, Epstein–Barr virus hallmarks failed to associate with other nasopharyngeal carcinoma characteristics. Furthermore, we confirmed that matrix metalloproteinase 9 existed in circulating tumor cells and expressed most in mesenchymal circulating tumor cells. In addition, matrix metalloproteinase 9-expressed extent in hybrid circulating tumor cells is somewhat different from epithelial and mesenchymal circulating tumor cells in matrix metalloproteinase 9-positive circulating tumor cells. Nevertheless, matrix metalloproteinase 9 had no relationship with other nasopharyngeal carcinoma characteristics. Finally, our results showed that circulating tumor cells were decreased in patients after therapies.


Taken together, circulating tumor cells were tightly correlated with nasopharyngeal carcinoma characteristics. In addition, Epstein–Barr virus was associated with nasopharyngeal carcinoma metastasis. Of note, decreased circulating tumor cells indicated a favorable curative effect in nasopharyngeal carcinoma patients.

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