Correlation of an epigenetic mitotic clock with cancer risk.

26 Mar 2018

BACKGROUND: Variation in cancer risk among somatic tissues has been attributed to variations in the underlying rate of stem cell division. For a given tissue type, variable cancer risk between individuals is thought to be influenced by extrinsic factors which modulate this rate of stem cell division. To date, no molecular mitotic clock has been developed to approximate the number of stem cell divisions in a tissue of an individual and which is correlated with cancer risk. RESULTS: Here, we integrate mathematical modeling with prior biological knowledge to construct a DNA methylation-based age-correlative model which approximates a mitotic clock in both normal and cancer tissue. By focusing on promoter CpG sites that localize to Polycomb group target genes that are unmethylated in 11 different fetal tissue types, we show that increases in DNA methylation at these sites defines a tick rate which correlates with the estimated rate of stem cell division in normal tissues. Using matched DNA methylation and RNA-seq data, we further show that it correlates with an expression-based mitotic index in cancer tissue. We demonstrate that this mitotic-like clock is universally accelerated in cancer, including pre-cancerous lesions, and that it is also accelerated in normal epithelial cells exposed to a major carcinogen. CONCLUSIONS: Unlike other epigenetic and mutational clocks or the telomere clock, the epigenetic clock proposed here provides a concrete example of a mitotic-like clock which is universally accelerated in cancer and precancerous lesions.