Circulating and disseminated tumour cells - mechanisms of immune surveillance and escape

Nat Rev Clin Oncol. 2017 Mar;14(3):155-167. doi: 10.1038/nrclinonc.2016.144. Epub 2016 Sep 20.


Metastatic spread of tumour cells is the main cause of cancer-related deaths. Understanding the mechanisms of tumour-cell dissemination has, therefore, become an important focus for cancer research. In patients with cancer, disseminated cancer cells are often detectable in the peripheral blood as circulating tumour cells (CTCs) and in the bone marrow or lymph nodes as disseminated tumour cells (DTCs). The identification and characterization of CTCs and DTCs has yielded important insights into the mechanisms of metastasis, resulting in a better understanding of the molecular alterations and profiles underlying drug resistance. Given the expanding role of immunotherapies in the treatment of cancer, interactions between tumour cells and immune cells are the subject of intense research. Theoretically, cancer cells that exit the primary tumour site - leaving the protection of the typically immunosuppressive tumour microenvironment - will be more vulnerable to attack by immune effector cells; thus, the survival of tumour cells after dissemination might be the 'Achilles' heel' of metastatic progression. In this Review, we discuss findings relating to the interactions of CTCs and DTCs with the immune system, in the context of cancer immuno-editing, evasion from immune surveillance, and formation of metastases.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / immunology
  • CD47 Antigen / immunology
  • Cell Hypoxia / immunology
  • Fas Ligand Protein / immunology
  • HLA Antigens / immunology
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Surveillance / immunology*
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology
  • Macrophages / immunology
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • Tumor Escape / immunology*
  • Tumor Microenvironment / immunology


  • CD47 Antigen
  • FASLG protein, human
  • Fas Ligand Protein
  • HLA Antigens