INTRODUCTION: The ability to screen blood of early stage operable breast cancer patients for circulating tumour cells is of potential importance for identifying patients at risk of developing distant relapse. We present the results of a study of the efficacy of the immunobead RT-PCR method in identifying patients with circulating tumour cells. RESULTS: Immunomagnetic enrichment of circulating tumour cells followed by RT-PCR (immunobead RT-PCR) with a panel of five epithelial specific markers (ELF3, EPHB4, EGFR, MGB1 and TACSTD1) was used to screen for circulating tumour cells in the peripheral blood of 56 breast cancer patients. Twenty patients were positive for two or more RT-PCR markers, including seven patients who were node negative by conventional techniques. Significant increases in the frequency of marker positivity was seen in lymph node positive patients, in patients with high grade tumours and in patients with lymphovascular invasion. A strong trend towards improved disease free survival was seen for marker negative patients although it did not reach significance (p = 0.08). CONCLUSION: Multi-marker immunobead RT-PCR analysis of peripheral blood is a robust assay that is capable of detecting circulating tumour cells in early stage breast cancer patients.