Liquid biopsy is a non-invasive approach to screening for cancer by analyzing blood samples to detect circulating tumor cells (CTCs), circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA), or extracellular vesicles that have been shed from tumors into the bloodstream. It holds promise as a way to monitor cancer recurrence and tumor evolution. Liquid biopsy also faces several key technical and biological challenges that currently limit its widespread clinical use for cancer screening.
One major limitation is that liquid biopsy has low tumor tissue sampling. Only a very small fraction of tumor DNA is released into the blood, usually measured in picograms per milliliter of blood. This makes the detection of genetic alterations and mutations challenging, as the tumor-derived DNA may only represent a tiny fraction of the total cell-free DNA in the blood. Improving the sensitivity and specificity of assays is an active area of research.
Another issue is heterogeneity within tumors. Cancer is known to be heterogeneous, with different mutations present in different regions of the same tumor. A blood draw may detect only a subset of the mutations if it samples DNA from just one or a few tumor sites. This could lead to false negatives if screening only detects common mutations but misses private mutations. Serial sampling may be needed over time to more fully characterize a tumor’s mutational profile.
Obtaining enough tumor-derived material for analysis is difficult in early-stage or small cancers that have not metastasized widely. Cells and DNA shed into the bloodstream may be below detectable levels if the primary tumor is localized and small in size. Liquid biopsy is generally better suited for later stage cancers with larger tumor burdens that shed more analyzable material systemically.
Distinguishing tumor-derived biomarkers from normal circulating components like cell-free DNA of non-tumor origin is challenging. Many genetic alterations detected may correspond to normal somatic mutations present at low levels in the blood even in healthy people. Statistical approaches are used to distinguish tumor signals from background noise.
The types and levels of circulating biomarkers can vary significantly between cancer types, tumor stages, and individual patients. No single benchmark has been established for what qualitatively or quantitatively indicates the presence of cancer. Patient-to-patient and disease variability complicate efforts to set universal detection thresholds.
Practical issues like sample preprocessing, storage and shipping logistics must be addressed. Proper protocols need to ensure collection tubes have sufficient preservatives, samples are centrifuged properly, and plasma is separated from whole blood within desired timeframes. Suboptimal handling can compromise analyte stability and test accuracy. Transportation logistics become more complex when specimens need relaying between multiple sites.
From a biological perspective, our understanding of tumor biology and answer release into the bloodstream remains incomplete. The dynamics of how, when and why certain cancers systematically disseminate or release biomarkers while others do not is still being uncovered. A more sophisticated grasp of these mechanisms could guide technical efforts like predicting optimal biomarker targets or sampling times.
Reimbursement policies also present hurdles since payers may consider liquid biopsy investigational until more definitive clinical utility data has been gathered in prospective trials. The cost-effectiveness of screening large populations is difficult to foresee without long term follow up on outcomes like morbidity or mortality.
While liquid biopsy is a transformative technology with significant potential, low tumor fractions in blood, tumor heterogeneity, variable shedding dynamics between cancers, differentiating signal from noise, standardizing platforms, and demonstrating clear management impacts remain areas that require ongoing research and validation. Technical improvements coupled with deeper biological insights may eventually help overcome many of these limitations to allow broader screening applications in the years ahead. But for now the technology remains better utilized monitoring known cancer patients rather than for general cancer screening of asymptomatic individuals. Continued progress is being made towards addressing the various challenges holding back clinical adoption.