Janke Florian et al.
BACKGROUND: DNA methylation (5-mC) signals in cell-free DNA (cfDNA) of cancer patients represent promising biomarkers for minimally invasive tumor detection. The high abundance of cancer-associated 5-mC alterations permits parallel and highly sensitive assessment of multiple 5-mC biomarkers. Here, we performed genome-wide 5-mC profiling in the plasma of metastatic ALK-rearranged non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients receiving tyrosine kinase inhibitor therapy. We established a strategy to identify ALK-specific 5-mC changes from cfDNA and demonstrated the suitability of the identified markers for cancer detection, prognosis, and therapy monitoring. METHODS: Longitudinal plasma samples (n = 79) of 21 ALK-positive NSCLC patients and 13 healthy donors were collected alongside 15 ALK-positive tumor tissue and 10 healthy lung tissue specimens. All plasma and tissue samples were analyzed by cell-free DNA methylation immunoprecipitation sequencing to generate genome-wide 5-mC profiles. Information on genomic alterations (i.e., somatic mutations/fusions and copy number alterations) determined in matched plasma samples was available from previous studies. RESULTS: We devised a strategy that identified tumor-specific 5-mC biomarkers by reducing 5-mC background signals derived from hematopoietic cells. This was followed by differential methylation analysis (cases vs. controls) and biomarker validation using 5-mC profiles of ALK-positive tumor tissues. The resulting 245 differentially methylated regions were enriched for lung adenocarcinoma-specific 5-mC patterns in TCGA data and indicated transcriptional repression of several genes described to be silenced in NSCLC (e.g., PCDH10, TBX2, CDO1, and HOXA9). Additionally, 5-mC-based tumor DNA (5-mC score) was highly correlated with other genomic alterations in cell-free DNA (Spearman, ρ > 0.6), while samples with high 5-mC scores showed significantly shorter overall survival (log-rank p = 0.025). Longitudinal 5-mC scores reflected radiologic disease assessments and were significantly elevated at disease progression compared to the therapy start (p = 0.0023). In 7 out of 8 instances, rising 5-mC scores preceded imaging-based evaluation of disease progression. CONCLUSION: We demonstrated a strategy to identify 5-mC biomarkers from the plasma of cancer patients and integrated them into a quantitative measure of cancer-associated 5-mC alterations. Using longitudinal plasma samples of ALK-positive NSCLC patients, we highlighted the suitability of cfDNA methylation for prognosis and therapy monitoring.