Epigenetics in cancer stem cell initiation and clinical outcome prediction
Cancer is responsible for approximately 25% of all deaths in the US and other developed countries. For women, breast and lung cancers and for men, cancers of prostate and lung are the most prevalent and the most common cause of deaths from cancer. While a large number of treatment modalities such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, etc. have been developed, we still are far from finding a cure for most cancers. So, more research is needed to understand the basic processes that are subverted by cancer cells to gain a proliferative advantage. In addition, cancer patients show a great deal of heterogeneity in the course and outcome of the disease. Therefore it is important to be able to predict the clinical outcome of the patients so that appropriate therapies can be administered. Clinical outcome prediction is based generally on tumor burden and degree of spread with additional information provided by histological type and patient demographics. However, patients with similar tumor characteristics still show heterogeneity in the course and outcome of disease. Thus, accurate sub-classification of patients with similar clinical outcomes is required for development of more efficacious therapies.
One important molecular process that is altered in cancer is the epigenetic regulation of gene expression. In humans, DNA is tightly wrapped around a core of proteins called histones to form chromatin—the physiologically relevant form of the genome. The histones can be modified by small chemical molecules which can affect the structure of chromatin, allowing for a level of control on gene expression. The patterns of occurrences of the histone modifications throughout chromatin are highly regulated and affect all molecular processes that are based on DNA. This information which is heritable but not encoded in the sequence of DNA is referred to as ‘epigenetics.’
A challenge in biology is to understand how histone modifications which can number to more than 150, contribute to normal gene regulation and how their alterations contribute to development of cancer stem cells. These cells are thought to be responsible for maintain the bulk of the tumor and need to be completely eradicated if we were to cure a given cancer. By studying primary cancer tissues and viruses that cause tumor, we have found that one histone modification plays a critical role in transforming a normal call to a tumor cell, potentially generating a cancer stem cell. We have found that he same histone modifications can be used as a biomarker to predict clinical outcome of patients. We now propose to study this process in more depth, discover other important histone modifications that contribute to cancer development and progression and use this knowledge to develop standard, simple and robust assays for predicting clinical outcome of cancer patients. Our work may also lead to identification important molecules that can be targeted for cancer therapy.
Cancer is a devastating disease that is becoming more prevalent as the population ages. While scientists have developed a general framework of how cancer initiates, there remains significant gaps in our knowledge about how cancer arises from a normal cell. One difficulty with studying cancer is the heterogeneity in the types of cells that exist within a given cancer tissue. Some of these cells have recently been shown to have stem cell-like properties and when isolated can reestablish the original tumor. These ‘cancer stem cells’ are thought to be responsible for maintaining the bulk of the tumor and need to be completely eradicated if we were to cure a given cancer. There is also a great deal of differences in the course and outcome of cancers with seemingly similar attributes, making application of appropriate therapies difficult. Our proposal aims to understand some of the basic processes that may contribute to development of cancer stem cells and to use this knowledge to develop proper clinical tests for prediction of cancer patients’ clinical outcome. This would be beneficial for people of California as it may lead to personalization of cancer therapy. Our work may also lead to identification of critical molecules that need to be therapeutically targeted to improve rates of cancer therapy. Identification of such molecules may lead to innovative discoveries and patents that may be exploited by the biotech industry in California, and thereby improve the economy of California as well.
Cancer is a genetic disease but epigenetic processes also contribute to cancer development and progression. Epigenetic processes include molecular pathways that modify the DNA itself or the proteins that are associated with DNA (i.e. histones), thereby affecting how the genetic information is used to maintain cellular states. Cancer cells exploit the normal epigenetic processes to their advantage to support uncontrolled growth and evade host defense mechanisms. Our proposal aims to understand the epigenetic requirements for cancer initiation and progression and how they can be used to develop prognostic assays that can predict cancer clinical outcome or response to therapeutics. We have made significant progress in all of our aims. We are discovering new basic principles governing epigenetic processes in human embryonic stem cells versus more differentiated cell types and understanding how these principles are implemented and regulated by the different types of cells. We have also shown that epigenetics can be used for cancer prognostic purposes as well as for prediction of response to specific cancer chemotherapeutics.
The goal of this proposal is to understand the dynamics of chromatin in various cellular differentiation states and how alteration of this dynamic may contribute to cancer development and progression. Our major findings are outlined as follows and further elaborated below.
1) Among the various acetylation sites of histones, H3K18ac has a unique distribution in hESCs and is specifically affected during oncogenic transformation. As part of a screen to discover upstream regulators of this modification site (described in previous reports), we identified a non-coding RNA that is required for maintenance of H3K18ac, expression of SOX2 and its target genes, and growth of hESCs.
2) We have discovered a highly novel and unanticipated role for histone acetylation. We have found that global histone acetylation and deacetylation coupled with flux of acetic acid in and out of the cells acts as a buffering system for regulation of intracellular pH. This phenomenon is a fundamental biological process and occurs in hESCs, cancer cells as well as normal differentiated human cells. (A paper reporting this finding is currently being reviewed at Nature.)
3) We are continuing our efforts on the role of linker histone H1.5 in transcriptional regulation of terminally differentiated cells vs hESCs. This is a continuation project from a CIRM SEED grant. A manuscript on this project was submitted to Cell but was not accepted. We have performed additional experiments and preparing a new manuscript.
I. A non-coding RNA is required for hESC growth.
This aim was designed to understand how the global levels of histone modifications are regulated. As reported in previous progress reports, we carried out a kinase screen in which ~800 kinases were knocked down individually using siRNAs and the levels of two histone modifications were examined. We validated the top hits which were reported last year. The most significant effect on histone modifications, especially H3K18ac, was observed in knockdown of TPRXL (tetra-peptide repeat homeobox-like). We found that knockdown of TPRXL causes ~50-70% reductions in the global levels of H3K18ac specifically, suggesting that TPRXL is required for maintenance of a portion of H3K18ac throughout the genome. It turned out that the identification of TPRXL was a fortuitous finding. TPRXL is not a kinase but has been mis-annotated as a kinase in certain databases, hence its inclusion in the kinase siRNA library. TPRXL is a member of the TPRX homeobox gene family and is designated as a non-functional retrotransposed pseudogene (Booth and Holland, 2007). It is suggested that TPRXL was generated by reverse transcription of TPRX1 mRNA which was then integrated near an enhancer active in placenta. Consistently, TPRXL has a very high expression in placenta compared to other tissues. Subsequent to integration, TPRXL sequence has diverged from that of TPRX1 in an unusual way. In certain regions, such as over the homebox domain, TPRXL has retained 81% nucleotide identity but only 66% amino acid identity compared to TPRX1 (Booth and Holland, 2007). Despite its designation, TPRXL could possibly be a functional retrogene as it is transcribed and contains two potential open reading frames (ORFs). One ORF can code for a short protein (139 a.a.) that would contain the homeodomain and a polyglutamine stretch. Another ORF codes for a longer protein that would consist mostly of a long polyserine/proline stretch.
Epigenetic processes include molecular pathways that modify the DNA or the proteins that are associated with DNA (i.e. histones), thereby affecting how the genetic information is used to maintain cellular states. Thus epigenetics plays an important role in normal biology and disease. When deregulated, epigenetic processes could contribute to disease development and progression. Since embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and cancer cells share the capacity to divide indefinitely, our proposal aims to understand the epigenetic requirements for such capacity. We have found that a particular epigenetic process, which we previously linked to cancer progression, may contribute to regulation of DNA replication in human ESCs. We have also discovered how epigenetic processes could in novel ways exert control over metabolic state of the cell. Finally, we have discovered how chromatin – the complex of DNA and histones – at specific sets of gene families is differentially compacted in differentiated cell types vs. human ESCs. Altogether, we are providing novel insights into the functions of various epigenetic processes and how they may differ in stem cells vs. other normal and cancer cell types.
Epigenetic processes include molecular pathways that modify the DNA or the proteins that are associated with DNA (i.e. histones), thereby affecting how the genetic information is read. Epigenetics plays an important role in normal biology and disease because it can affect how genes are turned on and off. Deregulation of epigenetic processes indeed contributes to disease development and progression including cancer. Our proposal has aimed to understand how the epigenome exerts its control over gene regulation. We have found that in addition to gene regulation, on epigenetic process is unexpectedly linked to control of cellular physiology. We have shown that dynamic acetylation of histone proteins regulates intracellular level of acidity, providing an unprecedented function for the epigenome. Our data provides plausible explanations for why ESCs contain in general higher levels of histone acetylation than other cell types and why certain cancers with low levels of histone acetylation are more aggressive. In a separate study, we have found that replication of DNA in ESCs is associated with a unique epigenetic signature that is not found in differentiated cells or other rapidly dividing cell types such as cancer. We have proposed that this molecular property of replication in ESCs may be an important determinant of continual cell division without malignancy, fundamentally distinguishing ESC-specific from cancer-like cell division. Altogether, we are providing novel insights into the functions of various epigenetic processes and how they may be similar or differ in stem cells vs. other normal and cancer cell types.