Functional analysis of single cells identifies a rare subset of circulating tumor cells with malignant traits

Integr Biol (Camb). 2014 Apr;6(4):388-98. doi: 10.1039/c3ib40264a. Epub 2014 Feb 13.


Ample evidence supports genetic and functional heterogeneity in primary tumors, but it remains unclear whether circulating tumor cells (CTCs) also exhibit the same hierarchical organization. We examined the functional diversity of viable, single CTCs using an array of subnanoliter wells (nanowells). The compartmentalization of single cells by nanowells allowed clonal comparison and mapping of heterogeneity of single cells or preformed clusters of cells. By measuring the short-term viability, invasiveness and secretory profiles of individual CTCs, it was evident that only a rare subset of CTCs possessed malignant traits indicative of metastatic potential in late-stage, progressing metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC) patients. These CTCs were resistant to anoikis after being in the circulation, were invasive in their epithelial state, or secreted proteases capable of cleaving peptide substrates. Every CTC observed, however, did not exhibit such metastatic potential, suggesting that enumeration of CTCs alone may be insufficient to understand metastasis or stratify patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Anoikis / physiology*
  • Cell Survival / physiology
  • Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Nanotechnology / methods*
  • Neoplasm Proteins / physiology*
  • Neoplasms, Hormone-Dependent / pathology*
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating / metabolism
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating / pathology*
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / pathology*


  • Neoplasm Proteins