Quantifying Fetal DNA in Maternal Blood Plasma by ddPCR Using DNA Methylation.
E. Hall, T. Riel, M. Ramesh, M. Gencoglu, O. Mikhaylichenko, R. Dannebaum, S. Margeridon, M. Herrera. Bio-Rad Laboratories, Pleasanton, CA. Association for Molecular Pathology 2022 Annual Meeting Abstracts. J Mol Diagn 2022, 24:S1 Abstract G072.
Introduction: The proportion of cell-free DNA (cfDNA) circulating in maternal blood that originates from the fetus, the fetal fraction, is an important quality control metric when performing tests on fetal-derived cfDNA. Epigenetic differences produce dissimilar DNA methylation patterns, allowing for leveraging regions of high methylation contrast using methylation-sensitive restriction enzyme (MSRE) digestion to quantify fetal and maternal DNA via droplet digital PCR (ddPCR). This advancement positions ddPCR as a faster and less expensive alternative to next-generation sequencing (NGS) for fetal fraction estimation.
Methods: Assays were designed to target MSRE- compatible regions with high methylation contrast between maternal and fetal cfDNA. Fetal assays targeted sites hypermethylated in fetal cfDNA and maternal assays targeted sites hypermethylated in maternal cfDNA. The assay multiplex was tested against contrived and clinical samples using an in-droplet MSRE-ddPCR workflow. The reaction mix was dropletized to create about 20,000 droplets per 24-μL reaction, thermocycled, and analyzed in a QX ONE instrument. The thermocycling profile included a 45-minute MSRE incubation step prior to PCR amplification. Contrived samples were constructed by spiking DNA-free plasma with micrococcal nuclease-digested DNA from an amniotic fluid cell line ("fetal" component) and a B-lymphocyte cell line ("maternal" component). Clinical samples were remnant diagnostic samples with existing NGS non-invasive prenatal testing results attached. DNA was extracted from all samples with the Apostle MiniMax kit on the KingFisher Flex.
Results: From an initial set of 15 assays, a final five-assay multiplex was produced following amplicon sequencing with NGS and ddPCR screening. Although amplicon sequencing did not completely predict ddPCR performance and non- specific interactions, it was valuable for guiding the final ddPCR screen. The five-assay multiplex, consisting of three fetal assays and two maternal assays, produced an excellent linear response against contrived samples from 0% to 25% fetal fraction (R2 >0.99). Similarly, a high correlation was observed between ddPCR-estimated fetal fraction and NGS fetal fraction for a set of clinical samples (n=6, plus two non- pregnant controls, R2 >0.94).
Conclusions: As an epigenetic trait, DNA methylation is a useful way to discriminate between otherwise highly similar DNA sequences in an efficient and effective manner. Leveraging DNA methylation may be done with minimal impact to the standard ddPCR workflow. The high sensitivity, speed, and direct quantification of ddPCR make it an attractive alternative to NGS for fetal fraction estimation.