Molecular subtyping of cancer offers tremendous promise for the optimization of a precision oncology approach to anticancer therapy. Recent advances in pancreatic cancer research uncovered various molecular subtypes with tumors expressing a squamous/basal-like gene expression signature displaying a worse prognosis. Through unbiased epigenome mapping, we identified deltaNp63 as a major driver of a gene signature in pancreatic cancer cell lines, which we report to faithfully represent the highly aggressive pancreatic squamous subtype observed in vivo, and display the specific epigenetic marking of genes associated with decreased survival. Importantly, depletion of deltaNp63 in these systems significantly decreased cell proliferation and gene expression patterns associated with a squamous subtype and transcriptionally mimicked a subtype switch. Using genomic localization data of deltaNp63 in pancreatic cancer cell lines coupled with epigenome mapping data from patient-derived xenografts, we uncovered that deltaNp63 mainly exerts its effects by activating subtype-specific super enhancers. Furthermore, we identified a group of 45 subtype-specific super enhancers that are associated with poorer prognosis and are highly dependent on deltaNp63. Genes associated with these enhancers included a network of transcription factors, including HIF1A, BHLHE40, and RXRA, which form a highly intertwined transcriptional regulatory network with deltaNp63 to further activate downstream genes associated with poor survival.
Keywords: BHLHE40; deltaNp63; pancreatic cancer; super enhancers; transcription factors.