Germline Testing Data Validate Inferences of Mutational Status for Variants Detected From Tumor-Only Sequencing

JCO Precis Oncol. 2021 Nov 17;5:PO.21.00279. doi: 10.1200/PO.21.00279. eCollection 2021.


Pathogenic germline variants (PGVs) in cancer susceptibility genes are usually identified through germline testing of DNA from blood or saliva: their detection can affect treatment options and potential risk-reduction strategies for patient relatives. PGV can also be identified in tumor sequencing assays, which, when performed without patient-matched normal specimens, render determination of variants' germline or somatic origin critical.

Methods: Tumor-only sequencing data from 1,608 patients were retrospectively analyzed to infer germline versus somatic status of variants using an information-theoretic, gene-independent approach. Loss of heterozygosity was also determined. Predicted mutational models were compared with clinical germline testing results. Statistical measures were computed to evaluate performance.

Results: Tumor-only sequencing detected 3,988 variants across 70 cancer susceptibility genes for which germline testing data were available. We imputed germline versus somatic status for > 75% of all detected variants, with a sensitivity of 65%, specificity of 88%, and overall accuracy of 86% for pathogenic variants. False omission rate was 3%, signifying minimal error in misclassifying true PGV. A higher portion of PGV in known hereditary tumor suppressors were found to be retained with loss of heterozygosity in the tumor specimens (72%) compared with variants of uncertain significance (58%).

Conclusion: Analyzing tumor-only data in the context of specimens' tumor cell content allows precise, systematic exclusion of somatic variants and suggests a balance between type 1 and 2 errors for identification of patients with candidate PGV for standard germline testing. Although technical or systematic errors in measuring variant allele frequency could result in incorrect inference, misestimation of specimen purity could result in inferring somatic variants as germline in somatically mutated tumor suppressor genes. A user-friendly bioinformatics application facilitates objective analysis of tumor-only data in clinical settings.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Germ Cells
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mutation / genetics*
  • Mutation / physiology
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Whole Genome Sequencing / methods