(HealthDay News) — For stage III melanoma patients, circulating tumor cells (CTCs) predict relapse, according to a study published online Feb. 3 in Clinical Cancer Research.

Anthony Lucci, M.D., from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and colleagues examined whether CTCs are associated with early relapse in stage III melanoma in 243 patients (19, 28, 49, and 5 percent stage IIIA, IIIB, IIIC, and IIID, respectively). Relapse-free survival (RFS) was compared for patients with one or more baseline CTCs versus no CTCs.

Thirty-seven percent of patients had at least one baseline CTC. The researchers observed no association for CTC detection and substage or primary tumor characteristics. Detection of one or more baseline CTCs was significantly associated with decreased six-month RFS and 54-month RFS in a multivariable analysis (hazard ratio, 3.62 and 1.69, respectively).

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“Our analysis demonstrated that CTC detection was significantly associated with a decrease in relapse-free survival at six months, and persisted at a 54-month longer-term follow-up,” Lucci said in a statement. “The data from this study provides support for the future pursuit of liquid biopsy techniques to help identify patients most likely to benefit from adjuvant systemic therapy.”

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