Research ArticleCancer

Detection of Circulating Tumor DNA in Early- and Late-Stage Human Malignancies

Science Translational Medicine  19 Feb 2014:
Vol. 6, Issue 224, pp. 224ra24
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3007094

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Circulating Tumor DNA for Early Detection and Managing Resistance

Cancer evolves over time, without any warning signs. Similarly, the development of resistance to therapy generally becomes apparent only when there are obvious signs of tumor growth, at which point the patient may have lost valuable time. Although a repeat biopsy may be able to identify drug-resistant mutations before the tumor has a chance to regrow, it is usually not feasible to do many repeat biopsies. Now, two studies are demonstrating the utility of monitoring the patients’ blood for tumor DNA to detect cancer at the earliest stages of growth or resistance.

In one study, Bettegowda and coauthors showed that sampling a patient’s blood may be sufficient to yield information about the tumor’s genetic makeup, even for many early-stage cancers, without a need for an invasive procedure to collect tumor tissue, such as surgery or endoscopy. The authors demonstrated the presence of circulating DNA from many types of tumors that had not yet metastasized or released detectable cells into the circulation. They could detect more than 50% of patients across 14 tumor types at the earliest stages, when these cancers may still be curable, suggesting that a blood draw could be a viable screening approach to detecting most cancers. They also showed that in patients with colorectal cancer, the information derived from circulating tumor DNA could be used to determine the optimal course of treatment and identify resistance to epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) blockade.

Meanwhile, Misale and colleagues illustrated a way to use this information to overcome treatment resistance. These authors also found that mutations associated with EGFR inhibitor resistance could be detected in the blood of patients with colorectal cancer. In addition, they demonstrated that adding MEK inhibitors, another class of anticancer drugs, can successfully overcome resistance when given in conjunction with the EGFR inhibitors.

Thus, the studies from Bettegowda and Misale and their colleagues show the effectiveness of analyzing circulating DNA from a variety of tumors and highlight the potential investigational and clinical applications of this novel technology for early detection, monitoring resistance, and devising treatment plans to overcome resistance.