Background: Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is one of the most common cancers and frequently presents with an advanced disease at diagnosis. There is only limited knowledge of genome-scale methylation changes in HCC.
Methods and findings: We performed genome-wide methylation profiling in a total of 47 samples including 27 HCC and 20 adjacent normal liver tissues using the Illumina HumanMethylation450 BeadChip. We focused on differential methylation patterns in the promoter CpG islands as well as in various less studied genomic regions such as those surrounding the CpG islands, i.e. shores and shelves. Of the 485,577 loci studied, significant differential methylation (DM) was observed between HCC and adjacent normal tissues at 62,692 loci or 13% (p<1.03e-07). Of them, 61,058 loci (97%) were hypomethylated and most of these loci were located in the intergenic regions (43%) or gene bodies (33%). Our analysis also identified 10,775 differentially methylated (DM) loci (17% out of 62,692 loci) located in or surrounding the gene promoters, 4% of which reside in known Differentially Methylated Regions (DMRs) including reprogramming specific DMRs and cancer specific DMRs, while the rest (10,315) involving 4,106 genes could be potential new HCC DMR loci. Interestingly, the promoter-related DM loci occurred twice as frequently in the shores than in the actual CpG islands. We further characterized 982 DM loci in the promoter CpG islands to evaluate their potential biological function and found that the methylation changes could have effect on the signaling networks of Cellular development, Gene expression and Cell death (p=1.0e-38), with BMP4, CDKN2A, GSTP1, and NFATC1 on the top of the gene list.
Conclusion: Substantial changes of DNA methylation at a genome-wide level were observed in HCC. Understanding epigenetic changes in HCC will help to elucidate the pathogenesis and may eventually lead to identification of molecular markers for liver cancer diagnosis, treatment and prognosis.