Introduction: Breast cancer metastasis is a complex, multi-step biological process. Genetic mutations along with epigenetic alterations in the form of DNA methylation patterns and histone modifications contribute to metastasis-related gene expression changes and genomic instability. So far, these epigenetic contributions to breast cancer metastasis have not been well characterized, and there is only a limited understanding of the functional mechanisms affected by such epigenetic alterations. Furthermore, no genome-wide assessments have been undertaken to identify altered DNA methylation patterns in the context of metastasis and their effects on specific functional pathways or gene networks.
Methods: We have used a human gene promoter tiling microarray platform to analyze a cell line model of metastasis to lymph nodes composed of a poorly metastatic MDA-MB-468GFP human breast adenocarcinoma cell line and its highly metastatic variant (468LN). Gene networks and pathways associated with metastasis were identified, and target genes associated with epithelial-mesenchymal transition were validated with respect to DNA methylation effects on gene expression.
Results: We integrated data from the tiling microarrays with targets identified by Ingenuity Pathways Analysis software and observed epigenetic variations in genes implicated in epithelial-mesenchymal transition and with tumor cell migration. We identified widespread genomic hypermethylation and hypomethylation events in these cells and we confirmed functional associations between methylation status and expression of the CDH1, CST6, EGFR, SNAI2 and ZEB2 genes by quantitative real-time PCR. Our data also suggest that the complex genomic reorganization present in cancer cells may be superimposed over promoter-specific methylation events that are responsible for gene-specific expression changes.
Conclusion: This is the first whole-genome approach to identify genome-wide and gene-specific epigenetic alterations, and the functional consequences of these changes, in the context of breast cancer metastasis to lymph nodes. This approach allows the development of epigenetic signatures of metastasis to be used concurrently with genomic signatures to improve mapping of the evolving molecular landscape of metastasis and to permit translational approaches to target epigenetically regulated molecular pathways related to metastatic progression.