Recent advances in technology now permit robust and reproducible detection of circulating tumour cells (CTCs) from a simple blood test. Standardization in methodology has been instrumental in facilitating multicentre trials with the purpose of evaluating the clinical utility of CTCs. We review the current body of evidence supporting the prognostic value of CTC enumeration in breast, prostate and colorectal cancer, using standardized approaches, and studies evaluating the correlation of CTC number with radiological outcome. The exploitation of CTCs in cancer management, however, is now extending beyond prognostication. As technologies emerge to characterize CTCs at the molecular level, biological information can be obtained in real time, with the promise of serving as a 'surrogate tumour biopsy'. Current studies illuminate the potential of CTCs as pharmacodynamic and predictive biomarkers and potentially their use in revealing drug resistance in real time. Approaches for CTC characterization are summarized and the potential of CTCs in cancer patient management exemplified via the detection of epidermal growth factor receptor mutations from CTCs in patients with non-small cell lung cancer. The opportunity to learn more about the biology of metastasis through CTC analysis is now being realized with the horizon of CTC-guided development of novel anticancer therapies.
Keywords: biomarker; circulating tumour cells; circulating tumour microemboli; clinical trials; personalized medicine; pharmacodynamic biomarker; predictive biomarker; prognosis.