Tibetans existed in high altitude for ~25 thousand years and have evolutionary selected unique haplotypes assumed to be beneficial to hypoxic adaptation. EGLN1/PHD2 and EPAS1/HIF-2α, both crucial components of hypoxia sensing, are the two best-established loci contributing to high altitude adaptation. The co-adapted Tibetan-specific haplotype encoding for PHD2:p.[D4E/C127S] promotes increased HIF degradation under hypoxic conditions. The Tibetan-specific 200 kb EPAS1 haplotype introgressed from an archaic human population related to Denisovans which underwent evolutionary decay; however, the functional variant(s) responsible for high-altitude adaptation at EPAS1/HIF-2α have not yet been identified. Since HIF modulates the behavior of cancer cells, we hypothesized that these Tibetan selected genomic variants may modify cancer risk predisposition. Here, we ascertained the frequencies of EGLN1D4E/C127S and EGLN1C127S variants and ten EPAS1/HIF-2α variants in lung cancer patients and controls in Nepal, whose population consists of people with Indo-Aryan origin and Tibetan-related Mongoloid origin. We observed a significant association between the selected Tibetan EGLN1/PHD2 haplotype and lung cancer (p=0.0012 for D4E, p=0.0002 for C127S), corresponding to a two-fold increase in lung cancer risk. We also observed a two-fold or greater increased risk for two of the ten EPAS1/HIF-2α variants, although the association was not significant after correcting for multiple comparisons (p=0.12). Although these data cannot address the role of these genetic variants on lung cancer initiation or progression, we conclude that some selected Tibetan variants are strongly associated with a modified risk of lung cancer.
Keywords: ENGL1/PHD2; EPAS1/HIF-2α; high-altitude adaptation; hypoxia; lung cancer.