Human papillomavirus-related oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (HPV+ OPSCC) represents a unique disease entity within head and neck cancer with rising incidence. Previous work has shown that alternative splicing events (ASEs) are prevalent in HPV+ OPSCC, but further validation is needed to understand the regulation of this process and its role in these tumours. In this study, eleven ASEs (GIT2, CTNNB1, MKNK2, MRPL33, SIPA1L3, SNHG6, SYCP2, TPRG1, ZHX2, ZNF331, and ELOVL1) were selected for validation from 109 previously published candidate ASEs to elucidate the post-transcriptional mechanisms of oncogenesis in HPV+ disease. In vitro qRT-PCR confirmed differential expression of 9 of 11 ASE candidates, and in silico analysis within the TCGA cohort confirmed 8 of 11 candidates. Six ASEs (MRPL33, SIPA1L3, SNHG6, TPRG1, ZHX2, and ELOVL1) showed significant differential expression across both methods. Further evaluation of chromatin modification revealed that ASEs strongly correlated with cancer-specific distribution of acetylated lysine 27 of histone 3 (H3K27ac). Subsequent epigenetic treatment of HPV+ HNSCC cell lines (UM-SCC-047 and UPCI-SCC-090) with JQ1 not only induced downregulation of cancer-specific ASE isoforms, but also growth inhibition in both cell lines. The UPCI-SCC-090 cell line, with greater ASE expression, also showed more significant growth inhibition after JQ1 treatment. This study confirms several novel cancer-specific ASEs in HPV+OPSCC and provides evidence for the role of chromatin modifications in regulation of alternative splicing in HPV+OPSCC. This highlights the role of epigenetic changes in the oncogenesis of HPV+OPSCC, which represents a unique, unexplored target for therapeutics that can alter the global post-transcriptional landscape.
Keywords: Human papillomavirus; alternative splicing; oropharyngeal cancer; super-enhancers.