Bona fide germline genes have expression restricted to the germ cells of the gonads. Testis-specific germline development-associated genes can become activated in cancer cells and can potentially drive the oncogenic process and serve as therapeutic/biomarker targets; such germline genes are referred to as cancer/testis genes. Many cancer/testis genes are silenced via hypermethylation of CpG islands in their associated transcriptional control regions and become activated upon treatment with DNA hypomethylating agents; such hypomethylation-induced activation of cancer/testis genes provides a potential combination approach to augment immunotherapeutics. Thus, understanding cancer/testis gene regulation is of increasing clinical importance. Previously studied cancer/testis gene activation has focused on X chromosome encoded cancer/testis genes. Here we find that a sub-set of non-X encoded cancer/testis genes are silenced in non-germline cells via a mechanism that is refractory to epigenetic dysregulation, including treatment with the hypomethylating agent 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine and the histone deacetylase inhibitor tricostatin A. These findings formally indicate that there is a sub-group of the clinically important cancer/testis genes that are unlikely to be activated in clinical therapeutic approaches using hypomethylating agents and it indicates a unique transcriptional silencing mechanism for germline genes in non-germline cells that might provide a target mechanism for new clinical therapies.
Keywords: cancer/testis antigen; gene silencing; germline gene; hypomethylation; oncogenesis.