Disseminated tumor cells in breast cancer: detection, characterization and clinical relevance

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Hematogenous distant metastasis is the leading cause of cancer-related death in breast cancer and other solid tumors. By applying sensitive immunocytochemical or molecular assays, disseminated tumor cells (DTCs) in bone marrow can be detected in 20–40% of breast cancer patients without any clinical or even histopathological signs of metastasis. The detection of DTCs provides prognostic information and might help to identify patients who need adjuvant therapy, and to monitor the efficacy of adjuvant therapy. Within the last few years, various efforts have led to an increased sensitivity in the detection of DTC. This review will summarize the most important methods for DTC detection in bone marrow and for circulating tumor cells in the blood of breast cancer patients, the clinical relevance of DTCs and, finally, provide an outlook on clinical implications.

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