Review Article

Liquid biopsy for cancer screening, patient stratification and monitoring

Graham Brock, Elena Castellanos-Rizaldos, Lan Hu, Christine Coticchia, Johan Skog


Molecular characterization of a patient’s tumor to guide treatment decisions is increasingly being applied in clinical care and can have a significant impact on disease outcome. These molecular analyses, including mutation characterization, are typically performed on tissue acquired through a biopsy at diagnosis. However, tumors are highly heterogeneous and sampling in its entirety is challenging. Furthermore, tumors evolve over time and can alter their molecular genotype, making clinical decisions based on historical biopsy data suboptimal. Personalized medicine for cancer patients aims to tailor the best treatment options for the individual at diagnosis and during treatment. To fully enable personalized medicine it is desirable to have an easily accessible, minimally invasive way to determine and follow the molecular makeup of a patient’s tumor longitudinally. One such approach is through a liquid biopsy, where the genetic makeup of the tumor can be assessed through a biofluid sample. Liquid biopsies have the potential to help clinicians screen for disease, stratify patients to the best treatment and monitor treatment response and resistance mechanisms in the tumor. A liquid biopsy can be used for molecular characterization of the tumor and its non-invasive nature allows repeat sampling to monitor genetic changes over time without the need for a tissue biopsy. This review will summarize three approaches in the liquid biopsy field: circulating tumor cells (CTCs), cell free DNA (cfDNA) and exosomes. We also outline some of the analytical challenges encountered using liquid biopsy techniques to detect rare mutations in a background of wild-type sequences.

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