Receptor-activator of nuclear-factor –κB-ligand (RANKL) and its receptor RANK have been recently identified as key players in breast cancer bone metastases. Since Circulating Tumor Cells (CTCs) are considered a crucial step of metastatic process, we explored RANK expression on CTCs in metastatic breast cancer (MBC), and the predictive value of RANK-positive CTCs in monitoring patients during treatment with denosumab (anti-RANKL antibody). To this purpose, we developed a novel CTC assay to quantify RANK-positive CTCs in forty-two bone MBC patients, candidates to denosumab treatment. Companion algorithms ΔAUC and Slope were developed, and correlated with time to first skeletal-related-events (SRE), time to bone metastasis progression and time to visceral metastasis progression. Twenty-seven patients had at least one CTC at baseline and, among these, nineteen (70%) had one or more RANK–positive CTCs. Notably, the baseline total CTCs, but not the RANK-positive, were associated with Time-to-first-SRE, Time-to-Bone-Metastasis-Progression and Time-to-Visceral-Metastasis-Progression. Conversely, during treatment monitoring, positive ΔAUC value, expression of RANK-positive CTCs persistence, correlated with longer Time-to-first-SRE (p = 0.0002) and Time-to-Bone-Metastasis-Progression (p = 0.0012). Furthermore, the early increase at second day, in RANK-positive CTCs (Positive-Slope) was associated with delay in time-to-first-SRE (p = 0.0038) and Time-to-Bone-Metastasis-Progression (p = 0.0024). We demonstrate, for the first time, the expression of RANK on CTCs in MBC patients and that the persistence of RANK expression determines denosumab effectiveness.
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