Persistence of ctDNA in Patients with Breast Cancer During Neoadjuvant Treatment Is a Significant Predictor of Poor Tumor Response

Clin Cancer Res. 2021 Dec 3. doi: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-21-3231. Online ahead of print.


Purpose: Accurate response assessment during neoadjuvant systemic treatment (NST) poses a clinical challenge. Therefore, a minimally invasive assessment of tumor response based on cell-free circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) may be beneficial to guide treatment decisions.

Experimental design: We profiled 93 genes in tissue from 193 patients with early breast cancer. Patient-specific assays were designed for 145 patients to track ctDNA during NST in plasma. ctDNA presence and levels were correlated with complete pathological response (pCR) and residual cancer burden (RCB) as well as clinicopathologic characteristics of the tumor to identify potential proxies for ctDNA release.

Results: At baseline, ctDNA could be detected in 63/145 (43.4%) patients and persisted in 25/63 (39.7%) patients at mid-therapy (MT) and 15/63 (23.8%) patients at the end of treatment. ctDNA detection at MT was significantly associated with higher RCB (OR = 0.062; 95% CI, 0.01-0.48; P = 0.0077). Of 31 patients with detectable ctDNA at MT, 30 patients (96.8%) were nonresponders (RCB II, n = 8; RCB III, n = 22) and only one patient responded to the treatment (RCB I). Considering all 145 patients with baseline (BL) plasma, none of the patients with RCB 0 and only 6.7% of patients with RCB I had ctDNA detectable at MT, whereas 30.6% and 29.6% of patients with RCB II/III, respectively, had a positive ctDNA result.

Conclusions: Overall, our results demonstrate that the detection and persistence of ctDNA at MT may have the potential to negatively predict response to neoadjuvant treatment and identify patients who will not achieve pCR or be classified with RCB II/III.