Circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) consists of cell-free DNA (cfDNA) fragments that are released from tumor cells into the bloodstream. ctDNA harbors cancer-specific genetic and epigenetic alterations that allow its detection and quantification using a variety of emerging techniques. The promise of convenient non-invasive access to the complex and dynamic molecular features of cancer through peripheral blood has galvanized translational researchers around this topic with compelling routes to clinical implementation, particularly in the post-treatment surveillance setting. Although analysis methods must contend with the small quantities of ctDNA present in most patients, and the relative over-abundance of background cfDNA derived from normal tissues, recent technical innovations have led to dramatic improvements in the sensitivity of ctDNA detection. As a result, ever more studies are investigating the clinical utility of ctDNA for applications in (1) treatment response assessment, (2) identification of emerging resistance mechanisms, (3) minimal residual disease detection, and (4) characterization of clonal heterogeneity and selection. In this review, we describe the detection methods currently used in clinical studies to assess low fractions of ctDNA, as well as their utility in the applications previously described. Finally, we address current limitations that have hampered the clinical implementation of ctDNA analysis for post-treatment surveillance and propose steps that could be made to address them.
Keywords: cell-free DNA; circulating tumor DNA; liquid biopsy; minimal residual disease.
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