Purpose: To investigate whether the plasma levels of cellfree RNA (cfRNA) and telomere-specific reverse transcriptase mRNA (hTERT) are associated with tumor response in rectal cancer patients who received preoperative chemoradiotherapy (pCRT). Methods: Patients who underwent pCRT for rectal cancer and for whom baseline and paired post-pCRT blood samples were available were studied. On the basis of tumor regression score, patients were classified as having response or having no response. Clinical variables and plasma levels of cfRNA and hTERT before and after the pCRT were evaluated. The association between each predictor and tumor response was assessed by univariate and multivariate analyses. Results: Of 98 eligible patients, 45 were determined to respond to therapy, and 53 did not respond to therapy. In univariate analysis, gender (P = 0.040), baseline levels of cfRNA (P = 0.026), post-pCRT levels of both hTERT and cfRNA (P<0.0001 and P = 0.001, respectively), and the difference between the post- and pre-pCRT levels of both hTERT and cfRNA (P = 0.009 and P = 0.001, respectively) were found to be significant predictors of tumor response. In multivariate analysis, using variables that were available before pCRT, cfRNA levels and gender independently predicted the tumor response, while in multivariate analysis, which used all of the variables available before the surgical procedure, the post-pCRT levels of cfRNA and the difference between the post- and pre-pCRT levels of cfRNA independently predicted tumor response. Conclusions. Plasma levels of cfRNA and hTERT are promising markers of tumor response to pCRT for rectal cancer.
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