We comparatively evaluated different cytokeratin (CK) reagents analyzed by flow cytometry (FCM) for the identification of the best combination of DNA/CK staining for detecting minimal numbers of breast cancer cells in peripheral blood (PB). In 59 primary breast cancer tumors, we comparatively analyzed the reactivity for up to 6 different anti-CK reagents using multiparameter FCM: anti-CK7, anti-CK20, anti–pan-CK, anti-CK8/CK18, anti-CK8, and anti-CK18. Afterward, dilutional experiments of Michigan Cancer Foundation (MCF)7 breast cancer cells in PB were performed, and the sensitivity of a DNA/CK18 staining was evaluated.
Our results showed that anti-CK18 reagents were those providing the brightest and more sensitive staining for primary breast cancer tumor cells by FCM. Dilutional experiments of MCF cells in PB showed that the DNA/anti-CK18 double staining was highly specific for the identification of epithelial cells; its sensitivity ranged between 10–6 and 10–7 (detection of 1 tumor cell among 106 to 107 nucleated blood cells). Combined assessment of DNA cell contents and reactivity for CK18 by FCM is a sensitive method for the specific identification of breast cancer cells in PB.