Immune checkpoints are emerging treatment targets, but mechanisms underlying checkpoint expression are poorly understood. Since alterations in DNA repair genes have been connected to the efficacy of checkpoint inhibitors, we investigated associations between methylation of DNA repair genes and CTLA4 and CD274 (PD-L1) expression.A list of DNA repair genes (179 genes) was selected from the literature, methylation status and expression of inflammation-associated genes (The Cancer Genome Atlas data) was correlated in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), cervical and lung squamous cell carcinoma.A significant positive correlation of the methylation status of 15, 3 and 2 genes with checkpoint expression was identified, respectively. RAD51B methylation was identified in all cancer subtypes. In HNSCC and cervical cancer, there was significant enrichment for homologous recombination genes. Methylation of the candidate genes was also associated with expression of other checkpoints, ligands, MHC- and T-cell associated genes as well as an interferon-inflammatory immune gene signature, predictive for the efficacy of PD-1 inhibition in HNSCC.Homologous recombination deficiency might therefore be mediated by DNA repair gene hypermethylation and linked to an immune-evasive phenotype in SCC. The methylation status of these genes could represent a new predictive biomarker for immune checkpoint inhibition.
Keywords: DNA repair; HRD; immune checkpoints; immune therapy; inflamed gene expression signature.