Epigenetic alterations at distal enhancers are linked to proliferation in human breast cancer

NAR Cancer. 2022 Mar 24;4(1):zcac008. doi: 10.1093/narcan/zcac008. eCollection 2022 Mar.


Aberrant DNA methylation is an early event in breast carcinogenesis and plays a critical role in regulating gene expression. Here, we perform genome-wide expression-methylation Quantitative Trait Loci (emQTL) analysis through the integration of DNA methylation and gene expression to identify disease-driving pathways under epigenetic control. By grouping the emQTLs using biclustering we identify associations representing important biological processes associated with breast cancer pathogenesis including regulation of proliferation and tumor-infiltrating fibroblasts. We report genome-wide loss of enhancer methylation at binding sites of proliferation-driving transcription factors including CEBP-β, FOSL1, and FOSL2 with concomitant high expression of proliferation-related genes in aggressive breast tumors as we confirm with scRNA-seq. The identified emQTL-CpGs and genes were found connected through chromatin loops, indicating that proliferation in breast tumors is under epigenetic regulation by DNA methylation. Interestingly, the associations between enhancer methylation and proliferation-related gene expression were also observed within known subtypes of breast cancer, suggesting a common role of epigenetic regulation of proliferation. Taken together, we show that proliferation in breast cancer is linked to loss of methylation at specific enhancers and transcription factor binding and gene activation through chromatin looping.