The suppressor of cytokine signaling 1 (SOCS1) is a tumor suppressor gene found to be hypermethylated in cancers. It is involved in the oncogenic transformation of cirrhotic liver tissues. Here, we investigated the clinical relevance of SOCS1 methylation and modulation upon epigenetic therapy in diverse cellular populations of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). HCC clinical specimens were evaluated for SOCS1 methylation and mRNA expression. The effect of 5-Azacytidine (5-AZA), a demethylation agent, was assessed in different subtypes of HCC cells. We demonstrated that the presence of SOCS1 methylation was significantly higher in HCC compared to peri-HCC and non-tumoral tissues (52% vs. 13% vs. 14%, respectively, p < 0.001). In vitro treatment with a non-toxic concentration of 5-AZA significantly reduced DNMT1 protein expression for stromal subtype lines (83%, 73%, and 79%, for HLE, HLF, and JHH6, respectively, p < 0.01) compared to cancer stem cell (CSC) lines (17% and 10%, for HepG2 and Huh7, respectively), with the strongest reduction in non-tumoral IHH cells (93%, p < 0.001). 5-AZA modulated the SOCS1 expression in different extents among the cells. It was restored in CSC HCC HepG2 and Huh7 more efficiently than sorafenib. This study indicated the relevance of SOCS1 methylation in HCC and how cellular heterogeneity influences the response to epigenetic therapy.
Keywords: DNA methylation; SOCS1; epigenetic therapy; hepatocellular carcinoma; tumor heterogeneity.