Genetically abnormal cells circulating in patients with non-small cell lung cancer may actually be tumor cells, according to a study published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research (2010 Jul 22. [Epub ahead of print]).

In the study, led by Ruth Katz, MD, professor at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Department of Pathology, researchers used a technique called fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) to detect abnormal circulating cells that have aberrations found in non-small cell lung cancer. To analyze 59 cases of non-small cell lung cancer and 24 controls, researchers used 12 biomarker probes that target aberrations previously connected to lung cancer.

The study’s findings revealed that there were highly significant differences in the average number of abnormal cells in the bloodstream between patients and controls. In addition, abnormal cells were significantly associated with disease stage, with abnormal cells occurring much more frequently as cancer progressed from early to advanced stage disease. Researchers also reported that eight of the biomarkers had a strong overall correlation between abnormal circulating cells and tumors.

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“Blood tests for these circulating tumor cells could be used to diagnose lung cancer earlier, monitor response to therapy and detect residual disease in patients after treatment,” said Dr. Katz.

According to background information provided in the press release announcing the findings, Katz’s team plans to conduct studies with larger numbers of patients to validate that circulating abnormal cells are related to disease stage, relapse and survival.