The blood of most patients with active multiple myeloma (MM) contains cells related to the bone marrow tumor. However, identifying clonal cells in the blood of patients with monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) has been difficult. In this study, we analyzed blood mononuclear cells (BMNCs) from 16 patients with MGUS, 2 with amyloidosis, 8 with smoldering MM (SMM), 2 with indolent MM (IMM), and 15 with active MM using three different methods to detect and quantitate clonal cells, ie, immunofluorescence microscopy (IM) for monoclonal plasma cells, three-color flow cytometry (FC) for CD38(+)CD45- CD45(dim) cells, and the allele-specific oligonucleotide polymerase chain reaction (ASO-PCR). Using ASO-PCR, we were able to detect clonal cells in the blood in 13 of 16 patients with MGUS, 2 of 2 with amyloid, 6 of 8 with SMM, 2 of 2 with IMM, and 13 of 15 with MM. In 9 of the 13 patients with MGUS with blood involvement, the number of clonal cells was very small ( < 0.04% of the BMNCs). The median percentage of clonal cells as determined by ASO-PCR was 0.02 for MGUS, 0.02 for SMM, and 0.24 for MM. Clonal plasma cells or CD38+CD45- CD45(dim) cells were identified by IM or FC in 6 of 16 MGUS patients, 4 of 8 with SMM, and 11 of 15 with MM. In all cases in which IM or FC detected clonal cells, the ASO-PCR was positive. This study shows that, by using ASO-PCR, clonal cells can be found at very low levels in the blood in most patients with MGUS. However, the number of clonal cells in the blood of MGUS patients is less than those with overt MM (P = .006). In contrast to MGUS, patients with active MM are more likely to have identifiable clonal circulating plasma cells (P = .05).

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