Background: HOX genes are a family of developmental genes that are expressed neither in the developing forebrain nor in the normal brain. Aberrant expression of a HOX-gene dominated stem-cell signature in glioblastoma has been linked with increased resistance to chemo-radiotherapy and sustained proliferation of glioma initiating cells. Here we describe the epigenetic and genetic alterations and their interactions associated with the expression of this signature in glioblastoma.
Results: We observe prominent hypermethylation of the HOXA locus 7p15.2 in glioblastoma in contrast to non-tumoral brain. Hypermethylation is associated with a gain of chromosome 7, a hallmark of glioblastoma, and may compensate for tumor-driven enhanced gene dosage as a rescue mechanism by preventing undue gene expression. We identify the CpG island of the HOXA10 alternative promoter that appears to escape hypermethylation in the HOX-high glioblastoma. An additive effect of gene copy gain at 7p15.2 and DNA methylation at key regulatory CpGs in HOXA10 is significantly associated with HOX-signature expression. Additionally, we show concordance between methylation status and presence of active or inactive chromatin marks in glioblastoma-derived spheres that are HOX-high or HOX-low, respectively.
Conclusions: Based on these findings, we propose co-evolution and interaction between gene copy gain, associated with a gain of chromosome 7, and additional epigenetic alterations as key mechanisms triggering a coordinated, but inappropriate, HOX transcriptional program in glioblastoma.