Measuring disease biomarkers in biofluids to detect and monitor pathophysiologic events in tissues has enormous appeal. While detecting specific DNA sequences in blood plasma has been successful in informing about the presence of cancers, viruses, and a range of pathogens, this approach does not provide gene expression information, which could reveal more detailed information about disease activity. Measuring cell-free RNA in plasma would provide such information and has the potential to be more sensitive, given that one DNA molecule in a cell gives rise often to thousands or more RNA molecules.

However, with the exception of microRNAs, broad sequencing of cell-free messenger RNA (mRNA) profiles in plasma has been generally challenging. We discovered that a major barrier to cell-free RNA sequencing from plasma is that the large majority of mRNAs are both fragmented and have modified phosphorylation states at their 5’ and 3’ ends that make them invisible to standard small RNA-seq methods. We present a modified RNA-seq methodology, called phospho-RNA-seq, which revealed thousands of mRNA in blood plasma. The key to this approach is (i) the incorporation of T4-polynucleotide kinase treatment to change the phosphorylation states at the RNA ends, and (ii) a stringent bioinformatics analysis pipeline to reduce false positive alignments.

Phospho-RNA-seq identified cohorts of gene transcripts in plasma, including ones expressed in a tissue-specific manner. As proof-of-concept validation of the approach for biomarker identification, we used phospho-RNA-seq to longitudinally profile plasma specimens collected from patients undergoing hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. We detected bone marrow-enriched and liver-enriched transcript sets in plasma, which tracked with bone marrow recovery and hepatic injury, respectively. By providing expanded access to the transcriptome in plasma and potentially other biofluids, phospho-RNA-seq enables the discovery of new cell-free RNA biomarker signatures for a wide variety of liquid biopsy applications.

Citation Format: Maria D. Giraldez, Ryan M. Spengler, Alton Etheridge, Annika J. Goicochea, Missy Tuck, Sung W. Choi, David J. Galas, Muneesh Tewari. Phospho-RNA-seq: A liquid biopsy approach for cell-free mRNA/lncRNA profiling [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the AACR Special Conference on Advances in Liquid Biopsies; Jan 13-16, 2020; Miami, FL. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Clin Cancer Res 2020;26(11_Suppl):Abstract nr IA23.