The timing and progression of DNA methylation changes during carcinogenesis are not completely understood. To develop a timeline of aberrant DNA methylation events during malignant transformation, we analyzed genome-wide DNA methylation patterns in an isogenic human mammary epithelial cell (HMEC) culture model of transformation. To acquire immortality and malignancy, the cultured finite lifespan HMEC must overcome two distinct proliferation barriers. The first barrier, stasis, is mediated by the retinoblastoma protein and can be overcome by loss of p16INK4A expression. HMEC that escape stasis and continue to proliferate become genomically unstable before encountering a second more stringent proliferation barrier, telomere dysfunction due to telomere attrition. Rare cells that acquire telomerase expression may escape this barrier, become immortal, and develop further malignant properties. Our analysis of HMEC transitioning from finite lifespan to malignantly transformed showed that aberrant DNA methylation changes occur in a stepwise fashion early in the transformation process. The first aberrant DNA methylation step coincides with overcoming stasis, and results in few to hundreds of changes, depending on how stasis was overcome. A second step coincides with immortalization and results in hundreds of additional DNA methylation changes regardless of the immortalization pathway. A majority of these DNA methylation changes are also found in malignant breast cancer cells. These results show that large-scale epigenetic remodeling occurs in the earliest steps of mammary carcinogenesis, temporally links DNA methylation changes and overcoming cellular proliferation barriers, and provides a bank of potential epigenetic biomarkers that may prove useful in breast cancer risk assessment.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cancer Research