• competitive polymerase chain reaction;
  • breast cancer;
  • metastasis;
  • angiogenesis;
  • bone resorption


Tumor-stroma interactions are of primary importance in determining the pathogenesis of metastasis. Here, we describe the application of sensitive competitive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) techniques for detection and quantitation of human breast cancer cells (MDA-MB-231) in an in vivo mouse model of experimental metastasis. Human-specific oligonucleotide primers in competitive PCR reactions were used to quantify the amount of MDA-MB-231 cells per tissue per organ. Using this species-specific (semi)quantitative PCR approach, gene expression patterns of (human) tumor cells or (mouse) stromal cells in metastatic lesions in the skeleton or soft tissues were investigated and compared. In all metastatic lesions, MDA-MB-231 cells express angiogenic factors (vascular endothelial growth factors [VEGFs]; VEGF-A, -B, and -C) and bone-acting cytokines (parathyroid hormone-related protein [PTHrP] and macrophage colony-stimulating factor [M-CSF]). In these metastases, PECAM-1-positive blood vessels and stromal cells of mouse origin are detected. The latter express angiogenic factors and markers of sprouting vessels (VEGF receptors flt-1/flk-1/flk-4 and CD31/PECAM-1). Strikingly, steady-state messenger RNA (mRNA) levels of VEGF-A and -B and the major bone resorption stimulators PTHrP and M-CSF by tumor cells were elevated significantly in bone versus soft tissues (p ≤ 0.05, p ≤ 0.0001, p ≤ 0.001, and p ≤ 0.05, respectively), indicating tissue-specific expression of these tumor progression factors. In conclusion, MDA-MB-231 breast cancer cells express a variety of factors in vivo that have been implicated in metastatic bone disease and that correlate with poor survival of patients with breast cancer. We hypothesize that the observed up-regulated expression of angiogenic and bone-resorbing factors by the breast cancer cells in the skeleton underlie the clinically observed osteotropism of breast cancer cells and pathogenesis of osteolytic bone metastases. The application of the species-specific competitive PCR-based assay in vivo can provide new information concerning the involvement of gene families in tumor progression and metastatic disease and greatly facilitates the study of tumor-stroma interactions in cancer invasion and metastasis.