J Biomed Sci. 2023 Aug 9;30(1):65. doi: 10.1186/s12929-023-00953-z.
Head and Neck cancers (HNC) are a heterogeneous group of upper aero-digestive tract cancer and account for 931,922 new cases and 467,125 deaths worldwide. About 90% of these cancers are of squamous cell origin (HNSCC). HNSCC is associated with excessive tobacco and alcohol consumption and infection with oncogenic viruses. Genotyping tumour tissue to guide clinical decision-making is becoming common practice in modern oncology, but in the management of patients with HNSCC, cytopathology or histopathology of tumour tissue remains the mainstream for diagnosis and treatment planning. Due to tumour heterogeneity and the lack of access to tumour due to its anatomical location, alternative methods to evaluate tumour activities are urgently needed. Liquid biopsy approaches can overcome issues such as tumour heterogeneity, which is associated with the analysis of small tissue biopsy. In addition, liquid biopsy offers repeat biopsy sampling, even for patients with tumours with access limitations. Liquid biopsy refers to biomarkers found in body fluids, traditionally blood, that can be sampled to provide clinically valuable information on both the patient and their underlying malignancy. To date, the majority of liquid biopsy research has focused on blood-based biomarkers, such as circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA), circulating tumour cells (CTCs), and circulating microRNA. In this review, we will focus on ctDNA as a biomarker in HNSCC because of its robustness, its presence in many body fluids, adaptability to existing clinical laboratory-based technology platforms, and ease of collection and transportation. We will discuss mechanisms of ctDNA release into circulation, technological advances in the analysis of ctDNA, ctDNA as a biomarker in HNSCC management, and some of the challenges associated with translating ctDNA into clinical and future perspectives. ctDNA provides a minimally invasive method for HNSCC prognosis and disease surveillance and will pave the way in the future for personalized medicine, thereby significantly improving outcomes and reducing healthcare costs.