Radiation Biological Toximetry Using Circulating Cell-Free DNA (cfDNA) for Rapid Radiation/Nuclear Triage

Radiat Res. 2024 Jul 1;202(1):70-79. doi: 10.1667/RADE-23-00159.1.


Optimal triage biodosimetry would include risk stratification within minutes, and it would provide useful triage despite heterogeneous dosimetry, cytokine therapy, mixed radiation quality, race, and age. For regulatory approval, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Biodosimetry Guidance requires suitability for purpose and a validated species-independent mechanism. Circulating cell-free DNA (cfDNA) concentration assays may provide such triage information. To test this hypothesis, cfDNA concentrations were measured in unprocessed monkey plasma using a branched DNA (bDNA) technique with a laboratory developed test. The cfDNA levels, along with hematopoietic parameters, were measured over a 7-day period in Rhesus macaques receiving total body radiation doses ranging from 1 to 6.5 Gy. Low-dose irradiation (0-2 Gy) was easily distinguished from high-dose whole-body exposures (5.5 and 6.5 Gy). Fold changes in cfDNA in the monkey model were comparable to those measured in a bone marrow transplant patient receiving a supralethal radiation dose, suggesting that the lethal threshold of cfDNA concentrations may be similar across species. Average cfDNA levels were 50 ± 40 ng/mL [±1 standard deviation (SD)] pre-irradiation, 120 ± 13 ng/mL at 1 Gy; 242 ± 71 ng/mL at 2 Gy; 607 ± 54 at 5.5 Gy; and 1585 ± 351 at 6.5 Gy (±1 SD). There was an exponential increase in cfDNA concentration with radiation dose. Comparison of the monkey model with the mouse model and the Guskova model, developed using Chernobyl responder data, further demonstrated correlation across species, supporting a similar mechanism of action. The test is available commercially in a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) ready form in the U.S. and the European Union. The remaining challenges include developing methods for further simplification of specimen processing and assay evaluation, as well as more accurate calibration of the triage category with cfDNA concentration cutoffs.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell-Free Nucleic Acids* / blood
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Radiation
  • Humans
  • Macaca mulatta*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Radiometry / methods
  • Triage* / methods
  • Whole-Body Irradiation


  • Cell-Free Nucleic Acids