Background and aims: Hepatoblastoma (HB) and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) are the most common malignant hepatocellular tumors seen in children. The aim of this work was to develop a liquid biopsy test for circulating tumor cells (CTCs) for these tumors that would be less invasive and provide information about the real-time state of tumors in response to therapies.

Methods: For this test, we utilized indocyanine green (ICG), a near infra-red fluorescent dye that is used clinically to identify malignant liver cells in the body during surgery. We assessed ICG accumulation in cell lines with fluorescence microscopy and flow cytometry. For our CTC test, we developed a panel of liver tumor-specific markers, ICG, Glypican-3 (GPC3), and DAPI and tested this panel with cell lines and non-cancer control blood samples. We then used this panel to analyze whole blood samples for CTC burden with a cohort of 14 HB and HCC patients and correlated with patient characteristics and outcomes.

Results: We showed that ICG accumulation is specific to liver cancer cells, compared to non-malignant liver cells, non-liver solid tumor cells, and non-malignant cells and can be used to identify liver tumor cells in a mixed population of cells. Experiments with the ICG/GPC3/DAPI panel showed that it specifically tagged malignant liver cells. With patient samples, we found that CTC burden from sequential blood samples from the same patients mirrored the patients’ responses to therapy.

Conclusions: Our novel ICG-based liquid biopsy test for CTCs can be used to specifically count CTCs in the blood of pediatric liver cancer patients.

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