Circulating Plasma Tumor DNA Is Superior to Plasma Tumor RNA Detection in Ewing Sarcoma Patients: ptDNA and ptRNA in Ewing Sarcoma

J Mol Diagn. 2021 Jul;23(7):872-881. doi: 10.1016/j.jmoldx.2021.04.003. Epub 2021 Apr 20.


The detection of tumor-specific nucleic acids from blood increasingly is being used as a method of liquid biopsy and minimal residual disease detection. However, achieving high sensitivity and high specificity remains a challenge. Here, we perform a direct comparison of two droplet digital PCR (ddPCR)-based detection methods, circulating plasma tumor RNA and circulating plasma tumor DNA (ptDNA), in blood samples from newly diagnosed Ewing sarcoma patients. First, we developed three specific ddPCR-based assays to detect EWS-FLI1 or EWS-ERG fusion transcripts, which naturally showed superior sensitivity to DNA detection on in vitro control samples. Next, we identified the patient-specific EWS-FLI1 or EWS-ERG breakpoint from five patient tumor samples and designed ddPCR-based, patient-specific ptDNA assays for each patient. These patient-specific assays show that although plasma tumor RNA can be detected in select newly diagnosed patients, positive results are low and statistically unreliable compared with ptDNA assays, which reproducibly detect robust positive results across most patients. Furthermore, the unique disease biology of Ewing sarcoma enabled us to show that most cell-free RNA is not tumor-derived, although cell-free-DNA burden is affected strongly by tumor-derived DNA burden. Here, we conclude that, even with optimized highly sensitive and specific assays, tumor DNA detection is superior to RNA detection in Ewing sarcoma patients.

Publication types

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