Purpose: Circulating cell-free tumor DNA (ctDNA) reflects the heterogeneous spectrum of tumor-specific mutations, especially in systemic disease. We validated plasma-based assays that allow the dynamic quantitative detection of ctDNA as a prognostic biomarker for tumor load and prediction of therapy response in melanoma.
Materials and Methods: We analyzed plasma-derived ctDNA from a large training cohort (n = 96) of patients with advanced-stage melanoma, with assays for the BRAFV600E and NRASQ61 driver mutations as well as TERTC250T and TERTC228T promoter mutations. An independent patient cohort (n = 35) was used to validate the utility of ctDNA monitoring under mitogen-activated protein kinase–targeted or immune checkpoint therapies.
Results: Elevated plasma ctDNA level at baseline was an independent prognostic factor of disease progression when compared with serum S100 and lactate dehydrogenase levels in multivariable analyses (hazard ratio [HR], 7.43; 95% CI, 1.01 to 55.19; P = .05). The change in ctDNA levels during therapy correlated with treatment response, where increasing ctDNA was predictive for shorter progression-free survival (eg, for BRAFV600E ctDNA, HR, 3.70; 95% CI, 1.86 to 7.34; P < .001). Increasing ctDNA levels predicted disease progression significantly earlier than did routine radiologic scans (P < .05), with a mean lead time of 3.5 months. NRAS-mutant ctDNA was detected in a significant proportion of patients with BRAF-mutant tumors under therapy, but unexpectedly also at baseline. In vitro sensitivity studies suggested that this represents higher-than-expected intratumoral heterogeneity. The detection of NRASQ61 ctDNA in baseline samples of patients with BRAFV600E mutation who were treated with mitogen-activated protein kinase inhibitors significantly correlated with shorter progression-free survival (HR, 3.18; 95% CI, 1.31 to 7.68; P = .03) and shorter overall survival (HR, 4.08; 95% CI, 1.57 to 10.58; P = .01).
Conclusion: Our results show the potential role of ctDNA measurement as a sensitive monitoring and prediction tool for the early assessment of disease progression and therapeutic response in patients with metastatic melanoma.