Coordinated epigenetic remodelling of transcriptional networks occurs during early breast carcinogenesis

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Background: Dysregulation of the epigenome is a common event in malignancy; however, deciphering the earliest cancer-associated epigenetic events remains a challenge. Cancer epigenome studies to date have primarily utilised cancer cell lines or clinical samples, where it is difficult to identify the initial epigenetic lesions from those that occur over time. Here, we analysed the epigenome of human mammary epithelial cells (HMEC) and a matched variant cell population (vHMEC) that have spontaneously escaped senescence and undergone partial carcinogenic transformation. Using this model of basal-like breast carcinogenesis, we provide striking new insights into the very first epigenetic changes that occur during the initial stages of malignancy. Results: The first phase of malignancy is defined by coordinated changes in the epigenome. At the chromatin level, this is embodied in long-range epigenetic deregulation, which involves the concomitant but atypical acquisition or loss of active and repressive histone modifications across large regional blocks. Changes in DNA methylation also occurs in a highly coordinated manner. We identified differentially methylated regions (DMRs) in the very earliest passages of vHMECs. Notably, we find that differential methylation targets loci regulated by key transcription factors including p53, AHR and E2F family members suggesting that epigenetic deregulation of transcription factor binding is a key event in breast carcinogenesis. Interestingly, DMRs identified in vHMEC are extensively methylated in breast cancer, with hypermethylation frequently encroaching into neighbouring regions. A subset of vHMEC DMRs exhibited a strong basal-like cancer specific hypermethylation. Conclusions: Here, we generated epigenome-wide maps of the earliest phase of breast malignancy and show long-range epigenetic deregulation and coordinated DNA hypermethylation targets loci regulated by key transcription factors. These findings support a model where induction of breast cancer occurs through epigenetic disruption of transcription factor binding leading to deregulation of cancer-associated transcriptional networks. With their stability and very early occurrence, vHMECs hypermethylated loci could serve as excellent biomarkers for the initial detection of basal breast cancer.




Locke, W. J., Zotenko, E., Stirzaker, C., Robinson, M. D., Hinshelwood, R. A., Stone, A., … Clark, S. J. (2015). Coordinated epigenetic remodelling of transcriptional networks occurs during early breast carcinogenesis. Clinical Epigenetics, 7(1).

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