Epigenetic and Immune-Cell Infiltration Changes in the Tumor Microenvironment in Hepatocellular Carcinoma

Background: Epigenetics regulate gene expression without altering the DNA sequence. Epigenetics targeted chemotherapeutic approach can be used to overcome treatment resistance and low response rate in HCC. However, a comprehensive review of genomic data was carried out to determine the role of epigenesis in the tumor microenvironment (TME), immune cell-infiltration characteristics in HCC is still insufficient.

Methods: The association between epigenetic-related genes (ERGs), inflammatory response-related genes (IRRGs) and CRISPR genes was determined by merging genomic and CRISPR data. Further, characteristics of immune-cell infiltration in the tumor microenvironment was evaluated.

Results: Nine differentially expressed genes (ANP32B, ASF1A, BCORL1, BMI1, BUB1, CBX2, CBX3, CDK1, and CDK5) were shown to be independent prognostic factors based on lasso regression in the TCGA-LIHC and ICGC databases. In addition, the results showed significant differences in expression of PDCD-1 (PD-1) and CTLA4 between the high- and low-epigenetic score groups. The CTRP and PRISM-derived drug response data yielded four CTRP-derived compounds (SB-743921, GSK461364, gemcitabine, and paclitaxel) and two PRISM-derived compounds (dolastatin-10 and LY2606368). Patients with high ERGs benefited more from immune checkpoint inhibitor (ICI) therapy than patients with low ERGs. In addition, the high ERGs subgroup had a higher T cell exclusion score, while the low ERGs subgroup had a higher T cell dysfunction. However, there was no difference in microsatellite instability (MSI) score among the two subgroups. Further, genome-wide CRISPR-based loss-of function screening derived from DepMap was conducted to determine key genes leading to HCC development and progression. In total, 640 genes were identified to be essential for survival in HCC cell lines. The protein-protein interaction (PPI) network demonstrated that IRRGs PSEN1 was linked to most ERGs and CRISPR genes such as CDK1, TOP2A, CBX2 and CBX3.

Conclusion: Epigenetic alterations of cancer-related genes in the tumor microenvironment play a major role in carcinogenesis. This study showed that epigenetic-related novel biomarkers could be useful in predicting prognosis, clinical diagnosis, and management in HCC.

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