Dissemination of tumor cells from primary tumors in the circulatory system is an early event in carcinogenesis. The presence of these single disseminated tumor cells (DTC) in peripheral blood, bone marrow and distant organs is the rationale for adjuvant systemic treatment. Detection of DTC in bone marrow aspirates from breast cancer patients and other solid tumors at the primary diagnosis impacts the prognosis of disease. In peripheral blood these cells are termed as circulating tumor cells (CTC). Due to technical difficulties the clinical significance of CTC detection at early stages is less established. This review focuses on available techniques for detection of DTC and CTC, recent technical advances in development of more sensitive microfluidic methods for capture of DTC and CTC and possibilities for further detection and their potential molecular characterization. Not only the clinical significance of DTC but also the presence of cancer stem cells in dissemination clearly demonstrates the need for development of sensitive technologies allowing for definition of biomarkers and molecular targets on cells in dissemination, thus eventually leading to optimization of systemic therapies.
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