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Background: In cancer, normal epigenetic patterns are disturbed and contribute to gene expression changes, disease onset, and progression. The cancer epigenome is composed of the epigenetic patterns present in the tumor-initiating cell at the time of transformation, and the tumor-specific epigenetic alterations that are acquired during tumor initiation and progression. The precise dissection of these two components of the tumor epigenome will facilitate a better understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying malignant transformation. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) originates from differentiating B cells, which undergo extensive epigenetic programming. This poses the challenge to precisely determine the epigenomic ground state of the cell-of-origin in order to identify CLL-specific epigenetic aberrations. Methods: We developed a linear regression model, methylome-based cell-of-origin modeling (Methyl-COOM), to map the cell-of-origin for individual CLL patients based on the continuum of epigenomic changes during normal B cell differentiation. Results: Methyl-COOM accurately maps the cell-of-origin of CLL and identifies CLL-specific aberrant DNA methylation events that are not confounded by physiologic epigenetic B cell programming. Furthermore, Methyl-COOM unmasks abnormal action of transcription factors, altered super-enhancer activities, and aberrant transcript expression in CLL. Among the aberrantly regulated transcripts were many genes that have previously been implicated in T cell biology. Flow cytometry analysis of these markers confirmed their aberrant expression on malignant B cells at the protein level. Conclusions: Methyl-COOM analysis of CLL identified disease-specific aberrant gene regulation. The aberrantly expressed genes identified in this study might play a role in immune-evasion in CLL and might serve as novel targets for immunotherapy approaches. In summary, we propose a novel framework for in silico modeling of reference DNA methylomes and for the identification of cancer-specific epigenetic changes, a concept that can be broadly applied to other human malignancies.
Wierzbinska, J. A., Toth, R., Ishaque, N., Rippe, K., Mallm, J. P., Klett, L. C., … Lipka, D. B. (2020). Methylome-based cell-of-origin modeling (Methyl-COOM) identifies aberrant expression of immune regulatory molecules in CLL. Genome Medicine, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13073-020-00724-7