March 1, 2016 (Vol. 36, No. 5)

By Partitioning Samples Digital PCR Is Lowering Detection Limits and Enabling New Applications

Digital PCR (dPCR) has generated intense interest because it is showing potential as a clinical diagnostics tool. It has already proven to be a useful technique for any application where extreme sensitivity or precise quantification is essential, such as identifying mutations or copy number variations in tumor cells, or examining gene expression at the single-cell level.

GEN interviewed several dPCR experts to find out specifically why the technique is increasing in popularity. GEN also asked the experts to envision dPCR’s future capabilities.


GEN: What makes dPCR technology such a superior tool for discovery and diagnostic applications?

Dr. Shelton The high levels of sensitivity, precision, and reproducibility in DNA and quantification are the major strengths of dPCR. The technology is robust where differences in primer efficiency or the presence of sample-specific PCR inhibitors are trivial to the final quantification through an end-point amplification reaction.

This provides value to discovery as a trusted tool for validating potential biomarkers and hypotheses generated by broad profiling techniques such as microarrays or next-generation sequencing (NGS). In diagnostics applications, the reproducibility and rapid results of dPCR are critical for labs around the world to quickly compare and share data, especially for ultra-low detection of DNA where variability is high.

Dr. Garner Digital PCR provides a precise direct counting approach for single molecule detection, thereby providing a straightforward process for the absolute quantification of nucleic acids in samples. One of the biggest advantages of using a system such as ours is its ability to do real-time reads on digital samples. When samples go through PCR, their results are recorded after each cycle.

These results build a curve, and customers can analyze the data if something went wrong. If it isn’t a clean read—from either a contamination issue, primer-dimer issue, or off-target issue—the curve isn’t the classic PCR curve.

Dr. Menezes Digital PCR allows absolute quantification of target concentration in samples without the need for standard curves. Obtaining consistent, precise, and absolute quantification with regular qPCR is dependent on standard curve generation and amplification efficiency calculations, which can introduce errors.

Ms. Hibbs At MilliporeSigma Cell Design Studio, the implementation of dPCR has improved and accelerated the custom cell engineering workflow. After the application of zinc finger nuclease or CRISPR/Cas to create precise genetic modifications in mammalian cell lines, dPCR is used to characterize the expected frequency of homologous recombination and develop a screening strategy based on this expected frequency.

In some cell lines, homologous recombination occurs at a low frequency. In such cases, dPCR is used to screen cell pools and subsequently identify rare clones having the desired mutation. Digital PCR is also used to accurately and expeditiously measure target gene copy number. It is used this way, for example, in polyploid cell lines.

Dr. Price The ability to partition genomic samples to a level that enables robust detection of single target molecules is what sets dPCR apart as an innovative tool. Each partition (droplet in the case of the RainDrop System) operates as an individual PCR reaction, allowing for sensitive, reproducible, and precise quantification of nucleic acid molecules without the need for reference standards or endogenous controls.

Partitioning also provides greater tolerance to PCR inhibitors compared to quantitative PCR (qPCR). In doing so, dPCR can remedy many shortcomings of qPCR by transforming the analog, exponential nature of PCR into a digital signal.

Mr. Wakida Digital PCR is an ideal technology for detecting rare targets at concentrations of 0.1% or lower. By partitioning samples prior to PCR, exceptionally rare targets can be isolated into individual partitions and amplified.

Digital PCR produces absolute quantitative results, so in some respects, it is easier than qPCR because it doesn’t require a standard curve, with the added advantages of being highly tolerant of inhibitors and being able to detect more minute fold changes. Absolute quantification is useful for generating reference standards, detecting viral load, and preparing NGS libraries.


GEN: In what field do you think dPCR will have the greatest impact in the future?

Dr. Shelton dPCR will have a great impact on precision medicine, especially in liquid biopsy analysis. Cell-free DNA from bodily fluids such as urine or blood plasma can be analyzed quickly and cost-effectively using dPCR. For example, a rapid dPCR test can be performed to determine mutations present in a patient’s tumor and help drive treatment decisions.

Iterative monitoring of disease states can also be achieved due to the relatively low cost of dPCR, providing faster response times when medications are failing. Gene editing will also be greatly impacted by dPCR. Digital PCR enables refinement and optimization of gene-editing tools and conditions. Digital PCR also serves as quality control of therapeutically modified cells and viral transfer vectors used in gene-therapy efforts.

Dr. Garner The BioMark™ HD system combines dPCR with simultaneous real-time data for counting and validation. This capability is important for applications such as rare mutation detection, GMO quantitation, and aneuploidy detection—where false positives are intolerable and precision is paramount.

Any field that requires precision and the ability to detect false positives is a likely target for Fluidigm’s dPCR. Suitable applications include detecting and quantifying cancer-causing genes in patients’ cells, viral RNA that infects bacteria, or fetal DNA in an expectant mother’s plasma.

Dr. Menezes This technology is particularly useful for samples with low frequency sequences as, for example, those containing rare alleles, low levels of pathogen, or low levels of target gene expression. Teasing out fine differences in copy number variants is another area where this technology delivers more precise data.

Ms. Hibbs Digital PCR overcomes limitations associated with low-abundance template material and quantification of rare mutations in a high background of wild-type DNA sequence. For this reason, dPCR is poised to have significant impacts in diverse clinical applications such as detection and quantification of rare mutations in liquid biopsies, detection of viral pathogens, and detection of copy number variation and mosaicism.

Dr. Price Due to its high sensitivity, precision, and absolute quantification, the RainDrop dPCR has the potential to extend the range of nucleic acid analysis beyond the reach of other methods in a number of applications that could lend themselves to diagnostic, prognostic, and predictive applications. The precision of dPCR can be extremely useful in applications that require finer measures of fold change and rare variant detection.

Digital PCR is suitable for addressing varied research and clinical challenges. These include the early detection of cancer, pathogen/viral detection and quantitation, copy number variation, rare mutation detection, fetal genetic screening, and predicting transplant rejection. Additional applications include gene expression analysis, microRNA analysis, and NGS library quantification.

Mr. Wakida Digital PCR will have an impact on applications for detecting rare targets by enabling investigators to complement and extend their capabilities beyond traditionally employed methods. One such application is using dPCR to monitor rare targets in peripheral blood, as in liquid biopsies.

The monitoring of peripheral blood by means of dPCR has been described in several peer-reviewed articles. In one such article, investigators considered the clinical value of Thermo’s QuantStudio™ 3D Digital PCR system for the detection of circulating DNA in metastatic colorectal cancer (Dig Liver Dis. 2015 Oct; 47(10): 884–90).


GEN: Is there a new technology on the horizon that will increase the speed and/or efficiency of dPCR?

Dr. Shelton High-throughput sample analysis can be an issue with some dPCR systems. However, Bio-Rad’s Automated Droplet Generator allows labs to process 96 samples simultaneously, a capability that eliminates user-to-user variability and minimizes hands-on time.

We also want users to get the most information from one sample. Therefore, we are focused on expanding the multiplexing capabilities of our system. In development at Bio-Rad are new technologies that increase the multiplexing capabilities without loss of specificity or accuracy in the downstream workflow.

Dr. Garner Much of the industry direction seems to be in offering ever-higher resolution, or the ability to run more samples at the same resolution. Thus far, however, customers haven’t found commercial uses for these tools. Also, with increasing resolution and the search for even rarer mutations, the challenge of detecting false positives becomes an even bigger issue.

Dr. Menezes Use of ZEN™ Double-Quenched Probes by IDT in digital PCR provides increased sensitivity and a lower limit of detection. Due to the second quencher, ZEN probes provide even lower background than traditional single-quenched probes. And this lower background enables increased sensitivity when analyzing samples with low copy number targets, where every droplet matters.

Ms. Hibbs Quantification relies upon counting the number of positive partitions at the end point of the reaction. Accordingly, precision and resolution can be increased by increasing the number of partitions. We are now capable of analyzing on the order of millions of partitions per run, further extending the lower limit of detection. Additionally, the workflow is amenable to the integration of automation in order to increase throughput and standardize reaction set up.

Dr. Price Although dPCR is still an emerging technology, there is tremendous interest in its potential clinical diagnostics applications. Enabling adoption of dPCR in the clinical lab requires addressing current gaps in workflow, cost, throughput, and turnaround time.

Digital PCR technology has the potential for being improved significantly in two dimensions. First, one can address the problem of serially detecting positive versus negative partitions by leveraging lower-cost imaging detection technologies. Alternatively, one may capitalize on the small partition volumes to dramatically reduce the time to perform PCR. Ideally, the future will bring both capabilities to bear.

Mr. Wakida Compared to qPCR, dPCR currently requires more hands-on time to set up experiments. We are investigating methods to address this. 




























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