Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) have emerged as potential biomarkers in several cancers such as colon, prostate, and breast carcinomas, with a correlation between CTC number and patient prognosis being established by independent research groups. The detection and enumeration of CTCs, however, is still a developing field, with no universal method of detection suitable for all types of cancer. CTC detection in lung cancer in particular has proven difficult to perform, as CTCs in this type of cancer often present with nonepithelial characteristics. Moreover, as many detection methods rely on the use of epithelial markers to identify CTCs, the loss of these markers during epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition in certain metastatic cancers can render these methods ineffective. The development of personalized medicine has led to an increase in the advancement of molecular characterization of CTCs. The application of techniques such as FISH and RT-PCR to detect EGFR, HER2, and KRAS abnormalities in lung, breast, and colon cancer, for example, could be used to characterize CTCs in real time. The use of CTCs as a ‘liquid biopsy’ is therefore an exciting possibility providing information on patient prognosis and treatment efficacy. This review summarizes the state of CTC detection today, with particular emphasis on lung cancer, and discusses the future applications of CTCs in helping the clinician to develop new strategies in patient treatment.

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