Platelets, immune cells and the coagulation cascade; friend or foe of the circulating tumour cell?

Mol Cancer. 2021 Mar 31;20(1):59. doi: 10.1186/s12943-021-01347-1.


Cancer cells that transit from primary tumours into the circulatory system are known as circulating tumour cells (CTCs). These cancer cells have unique phenotypic and genotypic characteristics which allow them to survive within the circulation, subsequently extravasate and metastasise. CTCs have emerged as a useful diagnostic tool using "liquid biopsies" to report on the metastatic potential of cancers. However, CTCs by their nature interact with components of the blood circulatory system on a constant basis, influencing both their physical and morphological characteristics as well as metastatic capabilities. These properties and the associated molecular profile may provide critical diagnostic and prognostic capabilities in the clinic. Platelets interact with CTCs within minutes of their dissemination and are crucial in the formation of the initial metastatic niche. Platelets and coagulation proteins also alter the fate of a CTC by influencing EMT, promoting pro-survival signalling and aiding in evading immune cell destruction. CTCs have the capacity to directly hijack immune cells and utilise them to aid in CTC metastatic seeding processes. The disruption of CTC clusters may also offer a strategy for the treatment of advance staged cancers. Therapeutic disruption of these heterotypical interactions as well as direct CTC targeting hold great promise, especially with the advent of new immunotherapies and personalised medicines. Understanding the molecular role that platelets, immune cells and the coagulation cascade play in CTC biology will allow us to identify and characterise the most clinically relevant CTCs from patients. This will subsequently advance the clinical utility of CTCs in cancer diagnosis/prognosis.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers
  • Blood Coagulation Disorders / blood
  • Blood Coagulation Disorders / etiology
  • Blood Coagulation*
  • Blood Platelets / metabolism*
  • Cell Communication / genetics
  • Cell Communication / immunology
  • Disease Management
  • Disease Susceptibility
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition / genetics
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition / immunology
  • Humans
  • Immune System / immunology*
  • Immune System / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / blood
  • Neoplasms / complications
  • Neoplasms / etiology
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating / metabolism*
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating / pathology*


  • Biomarkers