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.
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