Targeting clinical epigenetic reprogramming for chemoprevention of metabolic and viral hepatocellular carcinoma

Gut. 2021 Jan;70(1):157-169. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2019-318918. Epub 2020 Mar 26.


Objective: Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the fastest-growing cause of cancer-related mortality with chronic viral hepatitis and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) as major aetiologies. Treatment options for HCC are unsatisfactory and chemopreventive approaches are absent. Chronic hepatitis C (CHC) results in epigenetic alterations driving HCC risk and persisting following cure. Here, we aimed to investigate epigenetic modifications as targets for liver cancer chemoprevention.

Design: Liver tissues from patients with NASH and CHC were analysed by ChIP-Seq (H3K27ac) and RNA-Seq. The liver disease-specific epigenetic and transcriptional reprogramming in patients was modelled in a liver cell culture system. Perturbation studies combined with a targeted small molecule screen followed by in vivo and ex vivo validation were used to identify chromatin modifiers and readers for HCC chemoprevention.

Results: In patients, CHC and NASH share similar epigenetic and transcriptomic modifications driving cancer risk. Using a cell-based system modelling epigenetic modifications in patients, we identified chromatin readers as targets to revert liver gene transcription driving clinical HCC risk. Proof-of-concept studies in a NASH-HCC mouse model showed that the pharmacological inhibition of chromatin reader bromodomain 4 inhibited liver disease progression and hepatocarcinogenesis by restoring transcriptional reprogramming of the genes that were epigenetically altered in patients.

Conclusion: Our results unravel the functional relevance of metabolic and virus-induced epigenetic alterations for pathogenesis of HCC development and identify chromatin readers as targets for chemoprevention in patients with chronic liver diseases.

Keywords: chemoprevention; gene expression; hepatitis C; hepatocellular carcinoma; non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.