Bring along your friends: Homotypic and heterotypic circulating tumor cell clustering to accelerate metastasis

Biomed J. 2020 Feb;43(1):18-23. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2020 Feb 11.


Metastasis formation is a hallmark of invasive cancers and it is achieved through the shedding of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) from the primary site into the blood circulation. There, CTCs are found as single cells or as multicellular clusters, with clusters carrying an elevated ability to survive within the bloodstream and initiate new metastatic lesions at distant sites. Clusters of CTCs include homotypic clusters made of cancer cells only, as well as heterotypic clusters that incorporate stromal or immune cells along with cancer cells. Both homotypic and heterotypic CTC clusters are characterized by a high metastasis-forming capability, high proliferation rate and by distinct molecular features compared to single CTCs, and their presence in the peripheral circulation of cancer patients is generally associated with a poor prognosis. In this short review, we summarize the current literature that describes homotypic and heterotypic CTC clusters, both in the context of their molecular characteristics as well as their value in the clinical setting. While CTC clusters have only recently emerged as key players in the metastatic process and many aspects of their biology remain to be investigated, a detailed understanding of their vulnerabilities may pave the way towards the generation of new metastasis-suppressing agents.

Keywords: Cell–cell interactions; Circulating tumor cell clusters; Circulating tumor cells; Liquid biopsy; Metastasis.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biopsy / methods
  • Cell Communication / physiology
  • Cell Movement*
  • Cluster Analysis*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Metastasis / pathology*
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating / pathology*