Tracking cancer progression: from circulating tumor cells to metastasis

Genome Med. 2020 Mar 19;12(1):31. doi: 10.1186/s13073-020-00728-3.


The analysis of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) is an outstanding tool to provide insights into the biology of metastatic cancers, to monitor disease progression and with potential for use in liquid biopsy-based personalized cancer treatment. These goals are ambitious, yet recent studies are already allowing a sharper understanding of the strengths, challenges, and opportunities provided by liquid biopsy approaches. For instance, through single-cell-resolution genomics and transcriptomics, it is becoming increasingly clear that CTCs are heterogeneous at multiple levels and that only a fraction of them is capable of initiating metastasis. It also appears that CTCs adopt multiple ways to enhance their metastatic potential, including homotypic clustering and heterotypic interactions with immune and stromal cells. On the clinical side, both CTC enumeration and molecular analysis may provide new means to monitor cancer progression and to take individualized treatment decisions, but their use for early cancer detection appears to be challenging compared to that of other tumor derivatives such as circulating tumor DNA. In this review, we summarize current data on CTC biology and CTC-based clinical applications that are likely to impact our understanding of the metastatic process and to influence the clinical management of patients with metastatic cancer, including new prospects that may favor the implementation of precision medicine.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / blood
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Liquid Biopsy / methods
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Neoplasms / blood*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating / metabolism*
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating / pathology


  • Biomarkers, Tumor