Background: Human papillomavirus-positive (HPV+) head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) represents a distinct clinical and epidemiological condition compared with HPV-negative (HPV-) HNSCC. To test the possible involvement of epigenetic modulation by HPV in HNSCC, we conducted a genome-wide DNA-methylation analysis.
Methods: Using laser-capture microdissection of 42 formalin-fixed paraffin wax-embedded (FFPE) HNSCCs, we generated DNA-methylation profiles of 18 HPV+ and 14 HPV- samples, using Infinium 450 k BeadArray technology. Methylation data were validated in two sets of independent HPV+/HPV- HNSCC samples (fresh-frozen samples and cell lines) using two independent methods (Infinium 450 k and whole-genome methylated DNA immunoprecipitation sequencing (MeDIP-seq)). For the functional analysis, an HPV- HNSCC cell line was transduced with lentiviral constructs containing the two HPV oncogenes (E6 and E7), and effects on methylation were assayed using the Infinium 450 k technology.
Results and discussion: Unsupervised clustering over the methylation variable positions (MVPs) with greatest variation showed that samples segregated in accordance with HPV status, but also that HPV+ tumors are heterogeneous. MVPs were significantly enriched at transcriptional start sites, leading to the identification of a candidate CpG island methylator phenotype in a sub-group of the HPV+ tumors. Supervised analysis identified a strong preponderance (87%) of MVPs towards hypermethylation in HPV+ HNSCC. Meta-analysis of our HNSCC and publicly available methylation data in cervical and lung cancers confirmed the observed DNA-methylation signature to be HPV-specific and tissue-independent. Grouping of MVPs into functionally more significant differentially methylated regions identified 43 hypermethylated promoter DMRs, including for three cadherins of the Polycomb group target genes. Integration with independent expression data showed strong negative correlation, especially for the cadherin gene-family members. Combinatorial ectopic expression of the two HPV oncogenes (E6 and E7) in an HPV- HNSCC cell line partially phenocopied the hypermethylation signature seen in HPV+ HNSCC tumors, and established E6 as the main viral effector gene.
Conclusions: Our data establish that archival FFPE tissue is very suitable for this type of methylome analysis, and suggest that HPV modulates the HNSCC epigenome through hypermethylation of Polycomb repressive complex 2 target genes such as cadherins, which are implicated in tumor progression and metastasis.