False-positive EGFR T790M mutations have been reported in formalin-fixed lung tumors, but the cause of the false positives has not been identified. The T790M mutation results from a C>T change at the cytosine of a CpG dinucleotide. The presence or absence of methylation at this cytosine has different consequences following deamination, resulting in a thymine or uracil, respectively, both of which however result in an artifactual change. Uracil-DNA glycosylase (UDG) can be used to eliminate DNA templates with uracil residues but is not active against artifactual thymines. We therefore investigated the use of thymine-DNA glycosylase (TDG) to reduce artifactual T790M mutations.
Formalin-fixed normal lung tissues and lung squamous cell carcinomas were tested to measure the frequency of false-positive EGFR mutations by use of droplet digital PCR before and after treatment with either UDG or TDG. Methylation at the cytosine at EGFR T790 was assessed by pyrosequencing and by analysis of public databases.
Artifactual EGFR T790M mutations were detected in all of the archival formalin-fixed normal lung and lung squamous cell carcinomas at mutant allele frequencies of 1% or lower. The cytosine at EGFR T790 showed high levels of methylation in all lung cancer samples and normal tissues. Pretreatment of the formalin-fixed DNA with either UDG or TDG reduced the false EGFR T790M mutations, but a greater reduction was seen with the TDG treatment.
Both U:G and T:G lesions in formalin-fixed tissue are sources of false-positive EGFR T790M mutations. This is the first report of the use of TDG to reduce sequence artifacts in formalin-fixed DNA and is applicable to the accurate detection of mutations arising at methylated cytosines.