AIM To develop a multiplex reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) method detecting circulating tumor cells in the peripheral blood of colorectal cancer (CRC) patients. METHODS Peripheral blood samples were collected from 88 CRC patients and 40 healthy individuals from the blood donors' clinic and subsequently analyzed by multiplex RT-RCR for the expression of carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), cytokeratin 20 (CK20) and epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mRNA. The analysis involved determining the detection rates of CEA, CK20 and EGFR transcripts vs disease stage and overall survival. Median follow-up period was 19 mo (range 8-28 mo). RESULTS Rates of CEA, CK20 and EGFR detection in CRC patients were 95.5%, 78.4% and 19.3%, respectively. CEA transcripts were detected in 3 healthy volunteer samples (7.5%), whereas all control samples were tested negative for CK20 and EGFR transcripts. The increasing number of positive detections for CEA, CK20 and EGFR transcripts in each blood sample was positively correlated with Astler-Coller disease stage (P < 0.001) and preoperative serum levels of CEA (P = 0.029) in CRC patients. Data analysis using Kaplan-Meier estimator documented significant differences in the overall survival of the different CRC patient groups as formed according to the increasing number of positivity for CEA, CK20 and EGFR transcripts. CONCLUSION These data suggest that multiplex RT-PCR assay can provide useful information concerning disease stage and overall survival of CRC patients.