Research ArticleCancer Genomics

Noninvasive Identification and Monitoring of Cancer Mutations by Targeted Deep Sequencing of Plasma DNA

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Science Translational Medicine  30 May 2012:
Vol. 4, Issue 136, pp. 136ra68
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3003726

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Deep Sequencing Tumor DNA in Plasma

Five liters of circulating blood contain millions of copies of the genome, broken into short fragments; in cancer patients, a small fraction is circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA). An even smaller number harbor mutations that affect cancer outcome. Looking for diagnostic answers in circulating DNA is a challenge, but Forshew, Murtaza, and colleagues have risen to the occasion by developing a tagged-amplicon deep sequencing (TAm-Seq) method that can amplify and sequence large genomic regions from even single copies of ctDNA. By sequencing such large regions, the authors were able to identify low-level mutations in the plasma of patients with high-grade serous ovarian carcinomas.

Forshew et al. designed primers to amplify 5995 bases that covered select regions of cancer-related genes, including TP53, EGFR, BRAF, and KRAS. In plasma obtained from 38 patients with high levels of ctDNA, the authors were able to identify mutations in TP53 at allelic frequencies of 2% to 65%. In plasma samples from one patient, they also identified a de novo mutation in EGFR that had not been detected 15 months prior in the tumor mass itself. Finally, the TAm-Seq approach was used to sequence ctDNA in plasma samples collected from two women with ovarian cancer and one woman with breast cancer at different time points, tracking as many as 10 mutations in parallel. Forshew and coauthors showed that levels of mutant alleles reflected the clinical course of the disease and its treatment—for example, stabilized disease was associated with low allelic frequency, whereas patients at relapse exhibited a rise in frequency.

Through several experiments, the authors were able to show that TAm-Seq is a viable method for sequencing large regions of ctDNA. Although this provides a new way to noninvasively identify gene mutations in our blood, TAm-Seq will need to achieve a more sensitive detection limit (<2% allele frequency) to identify mutations in the plasma of patients with less advanced cancers. Nevertheless, once optimized, this “liquid biopsy” approach will be amenable to personalized genomics, where the level and type of mutations in ctDNA would inform clinical decision-making on an individual basis.

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