Circulating mutational portrait of cancer: manifestation of aggressive clonal events in both early and late stages

J Hematol Oncol. 2017 May 4;10(1):100. doi: 10.1186/s13045-017-0468-1.


Background: Solid tumors residing in tissues and organs leave footprints in circulation through circulating tumor cells (CTCs) and circulating tumor DNAs (ctDNA). Characterization of the ctDNA portraits and comparison with tumor DNA mutational portraits may reveal clinically actionable information on solid tumors that is traditionally achieved through more invasive approaches.

Methods: We isolated ctDNAs from plasma of patients of 103 lung cancer and 74 other solid tumors of different tissue origins. Deep sequencing using the Guardant360 test was performed to identify mutations in 73 clinically actionable genes, and the results were associated with clinical characteristics of the patient. The mutation profiles of 37 lung cancer cases with paired ctDNA and tumor genomic DNA sequencing were used to evaluate clonal representation of tumor in circulation. Five lung cancer cases with longitudinal ctDNA sampling were monitored for cancer progression or response to treatments.

Results: Mutations in TP53, EGFR, and KRAS genes are most prevalent in our cohort. Mutation rates of ctDNA are similar in early (I and II) and late stage (III and IV) cancers. Mutation in DNA repair genes BRCA1, BRCA2, and ATM are found in 18.1% (32/177) of cases. Patients with higher mutation rates had significantly higher mortality rates. Lung cancer of never smokers exhibited significantly higher ctDNA mutation rates as well as higher EGFR and ERBB2 mutations than ever smokers. Comparative analysis of ctDNA and tumor DNA mutation data from the same patients showed that key driver mutations could be detected in plasma even when they were present at a minor clonal population in the tumor. Mutations of key genes found in the tumor tissue could remain in circulation even after frontline radiotherapy and chemotherapy suggesting these mutations represented resistance mechanisms. Longitudinal sampling of five lung cancer cases showed distinct changes in ctDNA mutation portraits that are consistent with cancer progression or response to EGFR drug treatment.

Conclusions: This study demonstrates that ctDNA mutation rates in the key tumor-associated genes are clinical parameters relevant to smoking status and mortality. Mutations in ctDNA may serve as an early detection tool for cancer. This study quantitatively confirms the hypothesis that ctDNAs in circulation is the result of dissemination of aggressive tumor clones and survival of resistant clones. This study supports the use of ctDNA profiling as a less-invasive approach to monitor cancer progression and selection of appropriate drugs during cancer evolution.

Keywords: Clonality; Liquid biopsy; Lung cancer; Mutation rate; Non-invasive.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Chemoradiotherapy
  • Clone Cells
  • DNA, Neoplasm / genetics*
  • Disease Progression
  • ErbB Receptors / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Erlotinib Hydrochloride / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Genes, Neoplasm
  • Genes, erbB-1
  • Genes, p53
  • Genes, ras
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / genetics
  • Lung Neoplasms / mortality
  • Lung Neoplasms / therapy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mutation*
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness / genetics*
  • Neoplasm Proteins / genetics
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Neoplasms / mortality
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Smoking / genetics


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • DNA, Neoplasm
  • Neoplasm Proteins
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Erlotinib Hydrochloride
  • EGFR protein, human
  • ErbB Receptors