The aim of our prospective study was to detect circulating epithelial cells (CEC) indicating the presence of disseminated tumor cells (DTC) in tissues affected by lymphatic and hematogenic colorectal cancer metastasis. DTC were tracked in lymph node, liver or bone marrow samples of 245 colorectal cancer patients using 2 independent RT-PCR assays for cytokeratin 20 (CK20) and guanylylcyclase C (GCC) that demonstrated a sensitivity of 1 colorectal cancer cell in 106 nucleated hematopoietic cells. CK20 mRNA was detected in 79% of lymph nodes, 35% of both liver lobes and 11% of bone marrow samples. GCC mRNA was found in 68% of lymph nodes, 60% of both liver lobes and 6% of bone marrow specimens. Both markers were recorded in 63% of lymph nodes, 45% of at least 1 liver lobe and 1% of bone marrow samples. There was no significant difference when comparing lymph node samples tested positive for both markers in patients with (N1/2; 65%) and without (N0; 56%) nodal involvement. The same was true when comparing the percentages of patients with and without clinically overt distant metastasis who were positive for both markers in at least 1 liver lobe (62% vs. 41%) or in bone marrow (4% vs. 0%). A score denoting the cumulative sum of tests indicating presence of CK20 and GCC mRNA in the liver was significantly related with UICC classification (p = 0.039). However, addition of lymph node results to this score decreased the correlation. The high incidence of clinically inconspicuous lymph node and liver samples tested positive for both markers emphasizes the function of these organs as primary filters for epithelial cells possibly shed from colorectal carcinomas. The potential prognostic significance of these findings warrants verification, especially regarding the importance of CEC or DTC resident in the liver of colorectal cancer patients. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.