Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) are shed into the bloodstream from primary tumors, but only a small subset of these cells generates metastases. We conducted an in vivo genome-wide CRISPR activation screen in CTCs from breast cancer patients to identify genes that promote distant metastasis in mice. Genes coding for ribosomal proteins and regulators of translation were enriched in this screen. Overexpression of RPL15, which encodes a component of the large ribosomal subunit, increased metastatic growth in multiple organs and selectively enhanced translation of other ribosomal proteins and cell cycle regulators. RNA sequencing of freshly isolated CTCs from breast cancer patients revealed a subset with strong ribosome and protein synthesis signatures; these CTCs expressed proliferation and epithelial markers and correlated with poor clinical outcome. Therapies targeting this aggressive subset of CTCs may merit exploration as potential suppressors of metastatic progression.
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