Detection of epithelial cancer cells in peripheral blood by reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction

Br J Cancer. 1995 Feb;71(2):278-81. doi: 10.1038/bjc.1995.56.


Circulating cancer cells in the blood play a central role in the metastatic process. Their number can be very small and techniques for their detection need to be both sensitive and specific. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) has been successfully used to detect small numbers of tumour cells in haematological cancer in which abnormalities in DNA are sufficiently consistent to make this possible. For most solid tumours this not yet feasible. However, we have found that reverse transcriptase (RT)-PRC for tissue-specific gene expression is a useful technique for identifying small numbers of circulating cells in melanoma and neuroblastoma patients. In this report we describe detection of colon carcinoma cells by RT-PCR using CK 20 mRNA as a marker. Unlike other cytokeratin genes examined (CK 8 and CK 19), CK 20 was not transcribed in normal haematopoietic cells. This suggests a role for RT-PCR in the detection of colon carcinoma metastasis in blood and bone marrow, using CK 20 as the target gene. Future analysis of clinical material will determine the clinical significance of this technique.

MeSH terms

  • Adenocarcinoma / pathology
  • Base Sequence
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / blood*
  • Bone Marrow / chemistry
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Transitional Cell / pathology
  • Colonic Neoplasms / pathology
  • Epithelium
  • Humans
  • Keratins / classification
  • Keratins / genetics*
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Neoplasm Metastasis / diagnosis*
  • Neoplasm Proteins / genetics*
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating*
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction*
  • RNA, Messenger / blood*
  • RNA, Neoplasm / blood*
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured
  • Urinary Bladder Neoplasms / pathology


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Neoplasm Proteins
  • RNA, Messenger
  • RNA, Neoplasm
  • Keratins