The use of blood-circulating cell-free DNA (cfDNA) as a “liquid biopsy” in oncology is being explored for its potential as a cancer biomarker. Mitochondria contain their own circular genomic entity (mitochondrial DNA, mtDNA), up to even thousands of copies per cell. The mutation rate of mtDNA is several orders of magnitude higher than that of the nuclear DNA. Tumor-specific variants have been identified in tumors along the entire mtDNA, and their number varies among and within tumors. The high mtDNA copy number per cell and the high mtDNA mutation rate make it worthwhile to explore the potential of tumor-specific cf-mtDNA variants as cancer marker in the blood of cancer patients. We used single-molecule real-time (SMRT) sequencing to profile the entire mtDNA of 19 tissue specimens (primary tumor and/or metastatic sites, and tumor-adjacent normal tissue) and 9 cfDNA samples, originating from 8 cancer patients (5 breast, 3 colon). For each patient, tumor-specific mtDNA variants were detected and traced in cfDNA by SMRT sequencing and/or digital PCR to explore their feasibility as cancer biomarker. As a reference, we measured other blood-circulating biomarkers for these patients, including driver mutations in nuclear-encoded cfDNA and cancer-antigen levels or circulating tumor cells. Four of the 24 (17%) tumor-specific mtDNA variants were detected in cfDNA, however at much lower allele frequencies compared to mutations in nuclear-encoded driver genes in the same samples. Also, extensive heterogeneity was observed among the heteroplasmic mtDNA variants present in an individual. We conclude that there is limited value in tracing tumor-specific mtDNA variants in blood-circulating cfDNA with the current methods available.

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Journal Neoplasia (United States)
Weerts, M.J.A, Timmermans, E.C. (E. C.), van de Stolpe, A, Vossen, R, Anvar, S.Y. (S. Y.), Foekens, J.A, … Martens, J.W.M. (2018). Tumor-Specific Mitochondrial DNA Variants Are Rarely Detected in Cell-Free DNA. Neoplasia (United States), 20(7), 687–696. doi:10.1016/j.neo.2018.05.003