Circulating and disseminated tumor cells: harbingers or initiators of metastasis?

Mol Oncol. 2017 Jan;11(1):40-61. doi: 10.1002/1878-0261.12022.


Tumor cells leave the primary tumor and enter the circulation. Once there, they are called circulating tumor cells (CTCs). A fraction of CTCs are capable of entering distant sites and persisting as disseminated tumor cells (DTCs). An even smaller fraction of DTCs are capable of progressing toward metastases. It is known that the DTC microenvironment plays an important role in sustaining their survival, regulating their growth, and conferring resistance to therapy. But we still have much to learn about the nature of these rare cell populations to predict which will progress and what exactly should cause concern for future relapse. Although recent technological advances in our ability to detect and molecularly and functionally characterize CTCs and DTCs promise to unravel this ambiguity, the timing of dissemination and the precise source of CTCs and DTCs profiled will impact the conclusions that can be made from these endeavors. In this review, we discuss the biology of CTCs and DTCs; the technologies to detect, isolate, and profile these cells; and the exceptions we must apply to our understanding of what role these cells play in the metastatic process. We conclude that a greater effort to understand the unique biology of these cells in context will positively impact our ability to use these cells to predict outcome, monitor treatment efficacy, and reveal therapeutically relevant targets to deplete these populations and ultimately prevent metastasis.

Keywords: chemoresistance; circulating tumor cells; disseminated tumor cells; dormancy; metastatic microenvironment; perivascular niche.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood Platelets / metabolism
  • Blood Platelets / pathology
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness / pathology
  • Neoplasm Metastasis / pathology*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating / metabolism
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating / pathology*
  • Tumor Microenvironment