Background: Patients with PTEN hamartoma tumor syndrome (PHTS) have germline mutations in the tumor-suppressor gene encoding phosphatase and tensin homologue (PTEN). Such mutations have been associated with a hereditary predisposition to multiple types of cancer, including the Cowden syndrome. However, a majority of patients who have PHTS-related phenotypes have tested negative for PTEN mutations. In a previous study, we found that the E3 ubiquitin ligase WWP1 negatively regulates the function of PTEN.
Methods: In a prospective cohort study conducted from 2005 through 2015, we enrolled 431 patients with wild-type PTEN who met at least the relaxed diagnostic criteria of the International Cowden Consortium. Patients were scanned for WWP1 germline variants. We used the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) data set as representative of apparently sporadic cancers and the Exome Aggregation Consortium data set excluding TCGA (non-TCGA ExAC) and the noncancer Genome Aggregation Database (gnomAD) as representative of population controls without a reported cancer diagnosis. We established both in vitro and murine in vivo models to functionally characterize representative WWP1 variants.
Results: The existence of germline WWP1 variants was first established in a family with wild-type PTEN who had oligopolyposis and early-onset colon cancers. A validation series indicated that WWP1 germline variants occurred in 5 of 126 unrelated patients (4%) with oligopolyposis as a predominant phenotype. Germline WWP1 variants, particularly the WWP1 K740N and N745S alleles, were enriched in patients who did not have PHTS but had prevalent sporadic cancers, including PTEN-related cancer types in TCGA (odds ratio, 1.5; 95% confidence interval, 1.1 to 2.1; P = 0.01). The prioritized WWP1 variants resulted in gain-of-function effects, which led to aberrant enzymatic activation with consequent PTEN inactivation, thereby triggering hyperactive growth-promoting PI3K signaling in cellular and murine models.
Conclusions: In this study involving patients with disorders resulting in a predisposition to the development of multiple malignant neoplasms without PTEN germline mutations, we confirmed the function of WWP1 as a cancer-susceptibility gene through direct aberrant regulation of the PTEN-PI3K signaling axis. (Funded by the National Institutes of Health and others.).
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