Evaluating the quantity, quality and size distribution of cell-free DNA by multiplex droplet digital PCR

Miguel Alcaide, Matthew Cheung, Jack Hillman, S Rod Rassekh, Rebecca J Deyell, Gerald Batist, Aly Karsan, Alexander W Wyatt, Nathalie Johnson, David W Scott, Ryan D Morin
Scientific Reports 2020 July 28, 10 (1): 12564
Cell-free DNA (cfDNA) has become a comprehensive biomarker in the fields of non-invasive cancer detection and monitoring, organ transplantation, prenatal genetic testing and pathogen detection. While cfDNA samples can be obtained using a broad variety of approaches, there is an urgent need to standardize analytical tools aimed at assessing its basic properties. Typical methods to determine the yield and fragment size distribution of cfDNA samples are usually either blind to genomic DNA contamination or the presence of enzymatic inhibitors, which can confound and undermine downstream analyses. Here, we present a novel droplet digital PCR assay to identify suboptimal samples and aberrant cfDNA size distributions, the latter typically associated with high levels of circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA). Our assay was designed to promiscuously cross-amplify members of the human olfactory receptor (OR) gene family and includes a customizable diploid locus for the determination of absolute cfDNA concentrations. We demonstrate here the utility of our assay to estimate the yield and quality of cfDNA extracts and deduce fragment size distributions that correlate well with those inferred by capillary electrophoresis and high throughput sequencing. The assay described herein is a powerful tool to establish quality controls and stratify cfDNA samples based on presumed ctDNA levels, then facilitating the implementation of robust, cost-effective and standardized analytical workflows into clinical practice.

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