Objectives: Differences among cancer cells within a tumor are important in tumorigenesis and treatment resistance, yet no measure of intratumor heterogeneity is suitable for routine application. We developed a quantitative measure of intratumor genetic heterogeneity, based on differences among mutated loci in the mutant-allele fractions determined by next-generation sequencing (NGS) of tumor DNA. We then evaluated the application of this measure to head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC).
Materials and methods: We analyzed published electronically available NGS results for 74 HNSCC. For each tumor we calculated mutant-allele tumor heterogeneity (MATH) as the ratio of the width to the center of its distribution of mutant-allele fractions among tumor-specific mutated loci.
Results: Intratumor heterogeneity assessed by MATH was higher in three poor-outcome classes of HNSCC: tumors with disruptive mutations in the TP53 gene (versus wild-type TP53 or non-disruptive mutations), tumors negative versus positive for human papillomavirus (even when restricted to tumors having wild-type TP53), and HPV-negative tumors from smokers with more pack-years of cigarette exposure (with TP53 status taken into account).
Conclusion: The relation of this type of intratumor heterogeneity to HNSCC outcome classes supports its further evaluation as a prognostic biomarker. As NGS of tumor DNA becomes widespread in clinical research and practice, MATH should provide a simple, quantitative, and clinically practical biomarker to help evaluate relations of intratumor genetic heterogeneity to outcome in any type of cancer.
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