How to study and overcome tumor heterogeneity with circulating biomarkers: The breast cancer case.

Breast cancer ranks first among female cancer-related deaths in Western countries. As the primary tumor can often be controlled by surgical resection, the survival of women with breast cancer is closely linked to the incidence of distant metastases. Molecular screening by next generation sequencing highlighted the spatial and temporal heterogeneity of solid tumors as well as the clonal evolution of cancer cells during progression and under treatment pressure. Such findings question whether an optimal assessment of disease progression and a screening for druggable mutations should be based on molecular features of primary or recurrent/metastatic lesions and therefore represent a crucial element for failure or success of personalized medicine. In fact, new targeted therapies may induce only short-term benefit annulled by the emergence of resistant clones with new driver mutations which would need to be rapidly and reliably identified. Serial tissue sampling is therefore essential but, unfortunately, also represents a problem since biopsies from solid lesions, which are invasive and potentially painful and risky, cannot be easily repeatedly sampled, are inaccessible or may not fully reflect tumor heterogeneity. The need to early detect and strike this “moving target” is now directing the scientific community towards liquid biopsy-based biomarkers, which include circulating tumor cells (CTC) and cell-free circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA), can be repeatedly assessed through non-invasive and easy-to-perform procedures and may act as reliable read-outs of functional and molecular features of recurrent/metastatic lesions. In this review we summarize the outcome of CTCs and ctDNA in breast cancer, with special reference on their role on unveiling and overcoming tumor heterogeneity, on their potential relevance for tumor surveillance and monitoring, and for the selection of therapeutic options. Finally, we propose integration between blood-based molecular and clinical approaches for monitoring disease progression according to the specific pattern of recurrence of the most aggressive breast cancer molecular subtypes.

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