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Ann Clin Lab Sci. 2013 Summer;43(3):295-304.

Circulating tumor cells: a review of present methods and the need to identify heterogeneous phenotypes.

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Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, USA.


The measurement and characterization of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) hold promise for advancing personalized therapeutics. CTCs are the precursor to metastatic cancer and thus have the potential to radically alter patient treatment and outcome. Currently, clinical information provided by the enumeration of CTCs is limited to predicting clinical outcome. Other areas of interest in advancing the practice of pathology include: using CTCs for early detection of potential metastasis, determining and monitoring the efficacy of individualized treatment regimens, and predicting site-specific metastasis. Important hurdles to overcome in obtaining this type of clinical information involve present limitations in defining, detecting, and isolating CTCs. Currently, CTCs are detected using epithelial markers. The definition of what distinguishes a CTC should be expanded to include CTCs with heterogeneous phenotypes, and markers should be identified to enable a more comprehensive capture. Additionally, most methods available for detecting CTCs do not capture functionally viable CTCs. Retaining functional viability would provide a significant advantage in characterizing CTC-subtypes that may predict the site of metastatic invasion and thus assist in selecting effective treatment regimens. In this review we describe areas of clinical interest followed by a summary of current circulating cell-separation technologies and present limitations. Lastly, we provide insight into what is required to overcome these limitations as they relate to applications in advancing the practice of pathology and laboratory medicine.

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