A mathematical model of ctDNA shedding predicts tumor detection size

Sci Adv. 2020 Dec 11;6(50):eabc4308. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abc4308. Print 2020 Dec.


Early cancer detection aims to find tumors before they progress to an incurable stage. To determine the potential of circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) for cancer detection, we developed a mathematical model of tumor evolution and ctDNA shedding to predict the size at which tumors become detectable. From 176 patients with stage I to III lung cancer, we inferred that, on average, 0.014% of a tumor cell's DNA is shed into the bloodstream per cell death. For annual screening, the model predicts median detection sizes of 2.0 to 2.3 cm representing a ~40% decrease from the current median detection size of 3.5 cm. For informed monthly cancer relapse testing, the model predicts a median detection size of 0.83 cm and suggests that treatment failure can be detected 140 days earlier than with imaging-based approaches. This mechanistic framework can help accelerate clinical trials by precomputing the most promising cancer early detection strategies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural