Genomic sequencing identifies WNK2 as a driver in hepatocellular carcinoma and a risk factor for early recurrence

J Hepatol. 2019 Dec;71(6):1152-1163. doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2019.07.014. Epub 2019 Jul 23.


Background & aims: Early recurrence of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) after curative resection is common. However, the association between genetic mechanisms and early HCC recurrence, especially in Chinese patients, remains largely unknown.

Methods: We performed whole-genome sequencing (49 cases), whole-exome sequencing (18 cases), and deep targeted sequencing (115 cases) on 182 primary HCC samples. Focusing on WNK2, we used Sanger sequencing and qPCR to evaluate all the coding exons and copy numbers of that gene in an additional 554 HCC samples. We also explored the functional effect and mechanism of WNK2 on tumor growth and metastasis.

Results: We identified 5 genes (WNK2, RUNX1T1, CTNNB1, TSC1, and TP53) harboring somatic mutations that correlated with early tumor recurrence after curative resection in 182 primary HCC samples. Focusing on WNK2, the overall somatic mutation and copy number loss occurred in 5.3% (39/736) and 27.2% (200/736), respectively, of the total 736 HCC samples. Both types of variation were associated with lower WNK2 protein levels, higher rates of early tumor recurrence, and shorter overall survival. Biofunctional investigations revealed a tumor-suppressor role of WNK2: its inactivation led to ERK1/2 signaling activation in HCC cells, tumor-associated macrophage infiltration, and tumor growth and metastasis.

Conclusions: Our results delineate genomic events that characterize Chinese HCCs and identify WNK2 as a driver of early HCC recurrence after curative resection.

Lay summary: We applied next-generation sequencing and conducted an in-depth genomic analysis of hepatocellular carcinomas from a Chinese patient cohort. The results delineate the genomic events that characterize hepatocellular carcinomas in Chinese patients and identify WNK2 as a driver associated with early tumor recurrence after curative resection.

Keywords: Early Recurrence; Hepatocellular Carcinoma; Sequencing; WNK2.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / genetics
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular* / surgery
  • China
  • Exome Sequencing
  • Female
  • Genes, Tumor Suppressor
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Hepatectomy* / adverse effects
  • Hepatectomy* / methods
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Liver Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Liver Neoplasms* / surgery
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mutation
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / genetics*
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / pathology
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases / genetics*
  • RUNX1 Translocation Partner 1 Protein / genetics
  • Signal Transduction
  • beta Catenin / genetics


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • CTNNB1 protein, human
  • RUNX1 Translocation Partner 1 Protein
  • RUNX1T1 protein, human
  • beta Catenin
  • WNK2 protein, human
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases