DNA methylation of individual repetitive elements in hepatitis C virus infection-induced hepatocellular carcinoma

Clin Epigenetics. 2019 Oct 21;11(1):145. doi: 10.1186/s13148-019-0733-y.


Background: The two most common repetitive elements (REs) in humans, long interspersed nuclear element-1 (LINE-1) and Alu element (Alu), have been linked to various cancers. Hepatitis C virus (HCV) may cause hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) by suppressing host defenses, through DNA methylation that controls the mobilization of REs. We aimed to investigate the role of RE methylation in HCV-induced HCC (HCV-HCC).

Results: We studied methylation of over 30,000 locus-specific REs across the genome in HCC, cirrhotic, and healthy liver tissues obtained by surgical resection. Relative to normal liver tissue, we observed the largest number of differentially methylated REs in HCV-HCC followed by alcohol-induced HCC (EtOH-HCC). After excluding EtOH-HCC-associated RE methylation (FDR < 0.001) and those unable to be validated in The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), we identified 13 hypomethylated REs (11 LINE-1 and 2 Alu) and 2 hypermethylated REs (1 LINE-1 and 1 Alu) in HCV-HCC (FDR < 0.001). A majority of these REs were located in non-coding regions, preferentially enriched with chromatin repressive marks H3K27me3, and positively associated with gene expression (median correlation r = 0.32 across REs). We further constructed an HCV-HCC RE methylation score that distinguished HCV-HCC (lowest score), HCV-cirrhosis, and normal liver (highest score) in a dose-responsive manner (p for trend < 0.001). HCV-cirrhosis had a lower score than EtOH-cirrhosis (p = 0.038) and HCV-HCC had a lower score than EtOH-HCC in TCGA (p = 0.024).

Conclusions: Our findings indicate that HCV infection is associated with loss of DNA methylation in specific REs, which could implicate molecular mechanisms in liver cancer development. If our findings are validated in larger sample sizes, methylation of these REs may be useful as an early detection biomarker for HCV-HCC and/or a target for prevention of HCC in HCV-positive individuals.

Keywords: DNA methylation; Hepatitis C virus; Hepatocellular carcinoma; Repetitive element.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Alu Elements
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / genetics*
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / virology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Female
  • Hepatitis C / complications*
  • Hepatitis C / genetics
  • Humans
  • Liver Cirrhosis / genetics*
  • Liver Cirrhosis, Alcoholic / genetics
  • Liver Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Liver Neoplasms / virology
  • Long Interspersed Nucleotide Elements
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Repetitive Sequences, Nucleic Acid*