Cancer cells shed naked DNA molecules into the circulation. This circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) has become the predominant analyte for liquid biopsies to understand the mutational landscape of cancer. Coupled with next-generation sequencing, ctDNA can serve as an alternative substrate to tumor tissues for mutation detection and companion diagnostic purposes. In fact, recent advances in precision medicine have rapidly enabled the use of ctDNA to guide treatment decisions for predicting response and resistance to targeted therapies and immunotherapies. An advantage of using ctDNA over conventional tissue biopsies is the relatively noninvasive approach of obtaining peripheral blood, allowing for simple repeated and serial assessments. Most current clinical practice using ctDNA has endeavored to identify druggable and resistance mutations for guiding systemic therapy decisions, albeit mostly in metastatic disease. However, newer research is evaluating potential for ctDNA as a marker of minimal residual disease in the curative setting and as a useful screening tool to detect cancer in the general population. Here we review the history of ctDNA and liquid biopsies, technologies to detect ctDNA, and some of the current challenges and limitations in using ctDNA as a marker of minimal residual disease and as a general blood-based cancer screening tool. We also discuss the need to develop rigorous clinical studies to prove the clinical utility of ctDNA for future applications in oncology.
Donna K. Dang, Ben H. Park