Droplet digital polymerase chain reaction (ddPCR), which could perform thousands of PCRs on a nanoliter scale simultaneously, would be an attractive method to massive parallel sequencing for identifying and studying the significance of low-frequency rare mutations. Recent evidence has shown that the key potential mechanisms of the failure of aromatase inhibitors-based therapy involve identifying activating mutations affecting the ligand-binding domain of the ESR1 gene. Therefore, the detection of ESR1 mutations may be useful as a biomarker predicting an effect of the treatment. We aimed to develop a ddPCR-based method for the sensitive detection of ESR1 mutations in 325 breast cancer specimens, in which 270 primary and 55 estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) metastatic breast cancer (MBC) specimens. Our ddPCR assay could detect the ESR1 mutant molecules with low concentration of 0.25 copies/μL. According to the selected cutoff, ESR1 mutations occurred in 7 (2.5%) of 270 primary breast cancer specimens and in 11 (20%) of 55 ER+ MBC specimens. Among the 11 MBC specimens, 5 specimens (45.5%) had the most common ESR1 mutation, Y537S, 4 specimens (36.3%) each had D538G, Y537N, and Y537C. Interestingly, 2 patients had 2 ESR1 mutations, Y537N/D538G and Y537S/Y537C, and 2 patients had 3 ESR1 mutations, Y537S/Y537N/D538G. Biopsy was performed in heterochrony in 8 women twice. In 8 women, 4 women had primary breast cancer and MBC specimens and 4 women had 2 specimens when treatment was failure. Four of these 8 women acquired ESR1 mutation, whereas no ESR1 mutation could be identified at first biopsy. ddPCR technique could be a promising tool for the next-generation sequencing-free precise detection of ESR1 mutations in endocrine therapy resistant cases and may assist in determining the treatment strategy.
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