Using circulating cell-free DNA to monitor personalized cancer therapy

Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 2017 May;54(3):205-218. doi: 10.1080/10408363.2017.1299683. Epub 2017 Apr 10.


High-quality genomic analysis is critical for personalized pharmacotherapy in patients with cancer. Tumor-specific genomic alterations can be identified in cell-free DNA (cfDNA) from patient blood samples and can complement biopsies for real-time molecular monitoring of treatment, detection of recurrence, and tracking resistance. cfDNA can be especially useful when tumor tissue is unavailable or insufficient for testing. For blood-based genomic profiling, next-generation sequencing (NGS) and droplet digital PCR (ddPCR) have been successfully applied. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the first such "liquid biopsy" test for EGFR mutations in patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Such non-invasive methods allow for the identification of specific resistance mutations selected by treatment, such as EGFR T790M, in patients with NSCLC treated with gefitinib. Chromosomal aberration pattern analysis by low coverage whole genome sequencing is a more universal approach based on genomic instability. Gains and losses of chromosomal regions have been detected in plasma tumor-specific cfDNA as copy number aberrations and can be used to compute a genomic copy number instability (CNI) score of cfDNA. A specific CNI index obtained by massive parallel sequencing discriminated those patients with prostate cancer from both healthy controls and men with benign prostatic disease. Furthermore, androgen receptor gene aberrations in cfDNA were associated with therapeutic resistance in metastatic castration resistant prostate cancer. Change in CNI score has been shown to serve as an early predictor of response to standard chemotherapy for various other cancer types (e.g. NSCLC, colorectal cancer, pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomas). CNI scores have also been shown to predict therapeutic responses to immunotherapy. Serial genomic profiling can detect resistance mutations up to 16 weeks before radiographic progression. There is a potential for cost savings when ineffective use of expensive new anticancer drugs is avoided or halted. Challenges for routine implementation of liquid biopsy tests include the necessity of specialized personnel, instrumentation, and software, as well as further development of quality management (e.g. external quality control). Validation of blood-based tumor genomic profiling in additional multicenter outcome studies is necessary; however, cfDNA monitoring can provide clinically important actionable information for precision oncology approaches.

Keywords: Genotype-directed cancer care; cfDNA; chromosomal aberration pattern analysis; ctDNA tumor genomic profiling; immunotherapy; liquid biopsy.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor / blood*
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics
  • DNA / blood*
  • DNA / chemistry
  • Genomic Instability
  • Genomics / methods*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Precision Medicine / methods*
  • Prostatic Neoplasms* / blood
  • Prostatic Neoplasms* / diagnosis
  • Prostatic Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Prostatic Neoplasms* / therapy


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • DNA