Patients undergoing high-dose chemotherapy (HDC) with autologous stem cell rescue (ASCR) may have tumor cells inadvertently infused if their stem cell product is tumor contaminated. We used an immunocytochemical (ICC) method to analyze 31 historically negative bone marrow (BM) specimens taken from women with advanced-stage breast cancer at the time of BM harvest before HDC. All 31 patients were treated on one of three consecutive HDC protocols and received BM or BM and peripheral stem cells (PSC) as ASCR. Six of 26 evaluable patients had ICC-detectable contaminating tumor cells in their BM harvests. These 6 patients had a trend toward decreased overall survival compared with those patients without ICC-detectable tumor cells (17 months median versus 25+ months, p = 0.11, log rank test for those patients achieving complete response, CR, from HDC). The sites of relapse in the ICC-positive and ICC-negative groups were not notably different when analyzed for new sites versus previous sites of disease. Therefore, our retrospective analysis of a small cohort of patients suggests that the infusion of tumor cells in breast cancer patients undergoing HDC may confer a poor prognosis. Relapse patterns however suggest failure both in new sites and in sites of previous disease. Additional studies in expanded patient populations are needed to explore further the role of tumor cell infusion in ASCR and the possible clinical benefits of tumor cell removal procedures.
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