Background: Quantification of circulating organ-specific cell-free DNA (cfDNA) provides a sensitive measure of ongoing cell death that could benefit evaluation of the cholestatic liver diseases primary biliary cholangitis (PBC) and primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), which lack reliable non-invasive biomarkers. Our goal in this pilot study was to determine whether liver-specific cfDNA levels are increased in PBC and PSC patients relative to controls and in advanced versus early disease, to evaluate their potential as novel disease biomarkers. Methods: Peripheral blood derived bisulfite-treated DNA was PCR amplified from patients with PBC (n = 48), PSC (n = 48) and controls (n = 96) to evaluate methylation status at 16 CpG sites reported to be specifically unmethylated in liver tissue near the genes IGF2R, ITIH4 and VTN. Amplicons were used to prepare paired end libraries which were sequenced on a MiSeq sequencer. Trimmed reads were aligned and used to determine unmethylation ratios and to calculate concentration of liver-specific cfDNA. Comparisons between groups were performed using the two-tailed Mann–Whitney Test and relationships between variables were evaluated using Pearson’s Correlation. Results: Levels of liver-specific cfDNA, as measured at the 3 genetic loci, were increased in PBC and PSC patients relative to controls and in late-stage relative to early-stage patients. As well, cfDNA levels were correlated with levels of alkaline phosphatase, a commonly used biochemical test to evaluate disease severity in liver disease, in patients, but not in controls. Conclusions: cfDNA offers promise as a non-invasive liquid-biopsy to evaluate liver-specific cell-death in patients with cholestatic liver diseases.
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