Post-treatment cell-free DNA as a predictive biomarker in molecular-targeted therapy of hepatocellular carcinoma

J Gastroenterol. 2021 May;56(5):456-469. doi: 10.1007/s00535-021-01773-4. Epub 2021 Mar 12.


Background: Liquid biopsies, particularly those involving circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA), are rapidly emerging as a non-invasive alternative to tumor biopsies. However, clinical applications of ctDNA analysis in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) have not been fully elucidated.

Methods: We measured the amount of plasma-derived cell-free DNA (cfDNA) in HCC patients before (n = 100) and a few days after treatment (n = 87), including radiofrequency ablation, transarterial chemoembolization, and molecular-targeted agents (MTAs), and prospectively analyzed their associations with clinical parameters and prognosis. TERT promoter mutations in cfDNA were analyzed using droplet digital PCR. Furthermore, we performed a comprehensive mutational analysis of post-treatment cfDNA via targeted ultra-deep sequencing (22,000× coverage) in a panel of 275 cancer-related genes in selected patients.

Results: Plasma cfDNA levels increased significantly according to HCC clinical stage, and a high cfDNA level was independently associated with a poor prognosis. TERT promoter mutations were detected in 45% of all cases but were not associated with any clinical characteristics. cfDNA levels increased significantly a few days after treatment, and a greater increase in post-treatment cfDNA levels was associated with a greater therapeutic response to MTAs. The detection rate of TERT mutations increased to 57% using post-treatment cfDNA, suggesting that the ctDNA was enriched. Targeted ultra-deep sequencing using post-treatment cfDNA after administering lenvatinib successfully detected various gene mutations and obtained promising results in lenvatinib-responsive cases.

Conclusions: Post-treatment cfDNA analysis may facilitate the construction of biomarkers for predicting MTA treatment effects.

Keywords: Cell-free DNA; Circulating tumor DNA; Hepatocellular carcinoma; Liquid biopsy; Targeted deep sequencing.