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Benign peripheral nerve sheath tumors are the clinical hallmark of Neurofibromatosis Type 1. They account for substantial morbidity and mortality in NF1. Cutaneous (CNF) and plexiform neurofibromas (PNF) share nearly identical histology, but maintain different growth rates and risk of malignant conversion. The reasons for this disparate clinical behavior are not well explained by recent genome or transcriptome profiling studies. We hypothesized that CNFs and PNFs are epigenetically distinct tumor types that exhibit differential signaling due to genome-wide and site-specific methylation events. We interrogated the methylation profiles of 45 CNFs and 17 PNFs from NF1 subjects with the Illumina EPIC 850K methylation array. Based on these profiles, we confirm that CNFs and PNFs are epigenetically distinct tumors with broad differences in higher-order chromatin states and specific methylation events altering genes involved in key biological and cellular processes, such as inflammation, RAS/MAPK signaling, actin cytoskeleton rearrangement, and oxytocin signaling. Based on our identification of two separate DMRs associated with alternative leading exons in MAP2K3, we demonstrate differential RAS/MKK3/p38 signaling between CNFs and PNFs. Epigenetic reinforcement of RAS/MKK/p38 was a defining characteristic of CNFs leading to pro-inflammatory signaling and chromatin conformational changes, whereas PNFs signaled predominantly through RAS/MEK. Tumor size also correlated with specific CpG methylation events. Taken together, these findings confirm that NF1 deficiency influences the epigenetic regulation of RAS signaling fates, accounting for observed differences in CNF and PNF clinical behavior. The extension of these findings is that CNFs may respond differently than PNFs to RAS-targeted therapeutics raising the possibility of targeting p38-mediated inflammation for CNF treatment.
Grit, J. L., Johnson, B. K., Dischinger, P. S., J. Essenburg, C., Adams, M., Campbell, S., … Steensma, M. R. (2021). Distinctive epigenomic alterations in NF1-deficient cutaneous and plexiform neurofibromas drive differential MKK/p38 signaling. Epigenetics and Chromatin, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13072-020-00380-6