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Circulating tumour DNA in the evolving treatment landscape of locally advanced rectal cancer: where does it fit in?

The management of locally advanced rectal cancer (LARC) requires multimodality treatment, typically with neoadjuvant chemoradiotherapy (CRT) followed by total mesorectal excision. However, the treatment landscape is rapidly evolving with total neoadjuvant therapy and non-operative management for selected patients emerging as other novel treatment approaches. With so many treatment options, there is a need for biomarkers to direct a more personalised treatment strategy for patients with LARC. In this review, we summarise the available data regarding the use of circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) in patients with LARC, as both a marker of treatment response to neoadjuvant therapy and as a marker of minimal residual disease (MRD) after patients have completed definitive local treatment. To date, the ability of ctDNA status to predict for pathologic complete response at any timepoint during multimodality treatment has been variably reported. The most consistent finding across available studies is the ability of ctDNA to detect MRD after CRT and surgery, the presence of which confers a significantly poor prognosis, with increased risk of cancer recurrence and worse overall survival. It is yet to be determined if providing additional therapies to patients with MRD improves outcomes. The available studies assessing the potential utility of ctDNA in LARC are limited by significant heterogeneity in the choice of ctDNA assay, timepoint at which ctDNA was collected, treatment that patients received and length of follow-up, leading to uncertainties about how to implement it into daily clinical practice. As the treatment landscape evolves, larger randomised trials assessing the role of ctDNA in LARC are needed.

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