Circulating free DNA

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Circulating free DNA (cfDNA) are degraded DNA fragments released to the blood plasma. cfDNA can be used to describe various forms of DNA freely circulating the bloodstream, including circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) and cell-free fetal DNA (cffDNA). Elevated levels of cfDNA are observed in cancer, especially in advanced disease.[1] There is evidence that cfDNA becomes increasingly frequent in circulation with the onset of age.[2] cfDNA has been shown to be a useful biomarker for a multitude of ailments other than cancer and fetal medicine. This includes but is not limited to trauma, sepsis, aseptic inflammation, myocardial infarction, stroke, transplantation, diabetes, and sickle cell disease.[3] cfDNA is mostly a double-stranded extracellular molecule of DNA, consisting of small fragments (70 to 200 bp) and larger fragments (21 kb).[4] and has been recognized as an accurate marker for the diagnosis of prostate cancer and breast cancer.[5]

Other publications confirm the origin of cfDNA from carcinomas and cfDNA occurs in patients with advanced cancer. Cell‐free DNA (cfDNA) is present in the circulating plasma, also in other body fluids.[6]

The release of cfDNA into the bloodstream appears by different reasons, including the primary tumor, tumor cells that circulate in peripheral blood, metastatic deposits present at distant sites, and normal cell types, like hematopoietic and stromal cells. Tumor cells and cfDNA circulate in the bloodstream of patients with cancer. Its rapidly increased accumulation in blood during tumor development is caused by an excessive DNA release by apoptotic cells and necrotic cells. Active secretion within exosomes has been discussed, but it is still we don't know whether this is a relevant or rather minor source of cfDNA.[7]

cfDNA circulates predominantly as nucleosomes, which are nuclear complexes of histones and DNA.[8] They are frequently nonspecifically elevated in cancer but may be more specific for monitoring cytotoxic cancer therapy, mainly for the early estimation of therapy efficacy.[9]


Circulated cell-free DNA was first discovered by Mandel and Metais in 1948.[10] It was later discovered that the level of cfDNA is significantly increased in the plasma of diseased patients. This discovery was first made in Lupus patients[11] and later it was determined that the levels of cfDNA are elevated in over half of cancer patients.[12] This increase in cfDNA in cancer patients has been shown to be due to circulating tumor cells (CTC) traveling in the peripheral blood. The ability to extract circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) from the human plasma has led to huge advancements in noninvasive cancer detection.[13] Most notably, it has led to what is now known as liquid biopsy. In short, liquid biopsy is using biomarkers and cancer cells in the blood as a means of diagnosing cancer type and stage.[14] This type of biopsy is noninvasive and allows for the routine clinical screening that is important in determining cancer relapse after initial treatment.[15]

Based on intracellular origin, cfDNA and immune system[edit]

The intracellular origin of cfDNA, e.g., either from nucleus or mitochondria, can also influence the inflammatory potential of cfDNA. MtDNA, nuclear DNA, is a potent inflammatory trigger.[16] MtDNA, due to its prokaryotic origin, holds many features that are similar to bacterial DNA, including the presence of a relatively high content of unmethylated CpG motifs, which are rarely observed in nuclear DNA.[17] The unmethylated CpG motifs are of particular importance as TLR9, the only endolysosomal DNA-sensing receptor, has a unique specificity for unmethylated CpG DNA. mtDNA was shown to activate neutrophils through TLR9 engagement [18] unless coupled to carrier proteins, mtDNA, but not nuclear DNA, can be recognized as a danger-associated molecular pattern inducing pro-inflammation through TLR9.[19] Collins et al. reported that intra-articular injection of mtDNA induces arthritis in vivo, proposing a direct role of mtDNA extrusion in the disease pathogenesis of RA .[20][19]

MtDNA, in contrast to nuclear DNA, is characterized by elevated basal levels of 8-OHdG, a marker of oxidative damage. The high content of oxidative damage in mtDNA is attributed to the close proximity of mtDNA to ROS and relatively inefficient DNA repair mechanisms that can lead to the accumulation of DNA lesions.[20][21]

They have shown that oxidative burst during NETosis can oxidize mtDNA and the released oxidized mtDNA by itself, or in complex with TFAM, can generate prominent induction of type I IFNs.[16] Oxidized mtDNA generated during programmed cell death is not limited to activate TLR9, but was shown to also engage the NRLP3 inflammasome, leading to the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, IL-1β, and IL-18.[20][22] MtDNA can also be recognized by cyclic GMP-AMP synthase (cGAS), a cytosolic dsDNA sensor to initiate a STING-IRF3-dependent pathway that in turn orchestrates the production of type I IFNs.[20][23]


Collection and purification[edit]

cfDNA purification is prone to contamination due to ruptured blood cells during the purification process.[24] Because of this, different purification methods can lead to significantly different cfDNA extraction yields.[25][26] At the moment, typical purification methods involve collection of blood via venipuncture, centrifugation to pellet the cells, and extraction of cfDNA from the plasma. The specific method for extraction of cfDNA from the plasma depends on the protocol desired.[27]

Analysis of cfDNA in Plasma[edit]

Continuous flow PCR schematic.png


In general, the detection of specific DNA sequences in cfDNA can be done by two means; sequence specific detection (PCR based) and general genomic analysis of all cfDNA present in the blood (DNA sequencing).[28] The presence of cfDNA containing DNA from tumor cells was originally characterized using PCR amplification of mutated genes from extracted cfDNA.[29] PCR based analysis of cfDNA typically rely on the analytical nature of qPCR and digital PCR. Both of these techniques can detect down to a single targeted molecule present in a sample. For this reason the PCR based method of detection is still very prominent tool in cfDNA detection. This method has the limitation of not being able to detect larger structural variant present in ctDNA and for this reason massively parallel next generation sequencing is also used to determine ctDNA content in cfDNA

Massively Parallel Sequencing[edit]

Massively parallel sequencing (MPS) has allowed the deep sequencing of cfDNA. this deep sequencing is required to detect ctDNA present in low concentrations in the plasma. Two main sequencing techniques are typically used for analysis of cfDNA; PCR amplicon sequencing[30] and hybrid capture sequencing.[31]

cfDNA and Illness[edit]


The majority of cfDNA research is focused on DNA originating from circulating tumor cells (ctDNA). In short, the DNA from circulating tumor cells gets released by means that are not fully understood.[32]


Elevated cfDNA has been detected with acute blunt trauma[33] and burn victims.[34] In both of these cases cfDNA concentration in the plasma were correlated to the severity of the injury, as well as outcome of the patient.


It has been shown that an increase cfDNA in the plasma of ICU patients is an indicator of the onset of sepsis.[35][36] Due to the severity of sepsis in ICU patients, further testing in order to determine the scope of cfDNA efficacy as a biomarker for septic risk is likely.[3]

Myocardial Infraction[edit]

Patients showing signs of myocardial infraction have been shown to have elevated cfDNA levels.[37] This elevation correlates to patient outcome in terms of additional cardiac issues and even mortality within two years.[38]

Transplant Graft Rejection[edit]

Foreign cfDNA has been shown to be present in the plasma of solid organ transplant patients. This cfDNA is derived from the grafted organ and is termed GcfDNA. GcfDNA values spike initially after a transplant procedure (>5%) and typically drop down (<0.5%) within one week.[39] If the host body rejects the grafted organ the GcfDNA concentration in the blood will rise to a level greater than 5-fold higher than those without complications. This increase in GcfDNA can be detected prior to any other clinical or biochemical signs of complication.[39]

Future directions[edit]

ELISA diretto e sandwich.png

cfDNA allows a rapid, easy, non-invasive and repetitive method of sampling. A combination of these biological features and technical feasibility of sampling, position cfDNA as a potential biomarker of enormous utility for example for autoimmune rheumatic diseases or tumors. However, this method lacks uniformity on the type of sample (plasma/serum/synovial fluid), methods of sample collection/processing, free or cell-surface bound DNA, cfDNA extraction and cfDNA quantification, and also in the presentation and interpretation of quantitative cfDNA findings.[20]

cfDNA is quantified by fluorescence methods, such as PicoGreen staining and ultraviolet spectrometry, the more sensitive is quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR; SYBR Green or TaqMan) of repetitive elements or housekeeping genes. Circulating nucleosomes, they are the primary repeating unit of DNA organization in chromatin, are quantified by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA).[40]


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