BACKGROUND: The p23.2 region of human chromosome 8 is frequently deleted in several types of epithelial cancer and those deletions appear to be associated with poor prognosis. Cub and Sushi Multiple Domains 1 (CSMD1) was positionally cloned as a candidate for the 8p23 suppressor but point mutations in this gene are rare relative to the frequency of allelic loss. In an effort to identify alternative mechanisms of inactivation, we have characterized CSMD1 expression and epigenetic modifications in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cell lines. RESULTS: Only one of the 20 cell lines examined appears to express a structurally normal CSMD1 transcript. The rest express transcripts which either lack internal exons, terminate abnormally or initiate at cryptic promoters. None of these truncated transcripts is predicted to encode a functional CSMD1 protein. Cell lines that express little or no CSMD1 RNA exhibit DNA methylation of a specific region of the CpG island surrounding CSMD1's first exon. CONCLUSION: Correlating methylation patterns and expression suggests that it is modification of the genomic DNA preceding the first exon that is associated with gene silencing and that methylation of CpG dinucleotides further 3' does not contribute to inactivation of the gene. Taken together, the cell line data suggest that epigenetic silencing and aberrant splicing rather than point mutations may be contributing to the reduction in CSMD1 expression in squamous cancers. These mechanisms can now serve as a focus for further analysis of primary squamous cancers.
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