Cell-free DNA and circulating tumor cell kinetics in a pre-clinical head and neck Cancer model undergoing radiation therapy

Nidal Muhanna*, Donovan Eu, Harley H.L. Chan, Catriona Douglas, Jason L. Townson, Marco A. Di Grappa, Reza M. Mohamadi, Shana O. Kelley, Scott V. Bratman, Jonathan C. Irish

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Background: Monitoring circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) and circulating tumor cells (CTCs), known as liquid biopsies, continue to be developed as diagnostic and prognostic markers for a wide variety of cancer indications, mainly due to their minimally invasive nature and ability to offer a wide range of phenotypic and genetic information. While liquid biopsies maintain significant promising benefits, there is still limited information regarding the kinetics of ctDNA and CTCs following radiation therapy which remains a vital treatment modality in head and neck cancers. This study aims to describe the kinetics of ctDNA and CTCs following radiation exposure in a preclinical rabbit model with VX2 induced buccal carcinoma. Methods: Seven rabbits were inoculated with VX2 cells in the buccal mucosa and subjected to radiation. At selected time points, blood sampling was performed to monitor differing levels of ctDNA and CTC. Plasma ctDNA was measured with quantitative PCR for papillomavirus E6 while CTCs were quantified using an immunomagnetic nanoparticles within a microfluidic device. Comparisons of CTC detection with EpCAM compared to multiple surface markers (EGFR, HER2 and PSMA) was evaluated and correlated with the tumor size. Results: Plasma ctDNA reflects the overall tumor burden within the animal model. Analysis of correlations between ctDNA with tumor and lymph node volumes showed a positive correlation (R = 0.452 and R = 0.433 [p < 0.05]), respectively. Over the course of treatment, ctDNA levels declined and quickly becomes undetectable following tumor eradication. While during the course of treatment, ctDNA levels were noted to rise particularly upon initiation of radiation following scheduled treatment breaks. Levels of CTCs were observed to increase 1 week following inoculation of tumor to the primary site. For CTC detection, the use of multiple surface markers showed a greater sensitivity when compared to detection using only EpCAM. Plasma CTC levels remained elevated following radiation therapy which may account for an increased shedding of CTCs following radiation. Conclusion: This study demonstrates the utility of ctDNA and CTCs detection in response to radiation treatment in a preclinical head and neck model, allowing for better understanding of liquid biopsy applications in both clinical practice and research development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1075
JournalBMC cancer
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021


  • Circulating tumor DNA
  • Circulating tumor cell
  • Head and neck cancer
  • Oral cavity cancer preclinical model
  • Rabbit
  • Radiation
  • VX2

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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