Hepatitis B virus X protein induces EpCAM expression via active DNA demethylation directed by RelA in complex with EZH2 and TET2

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Chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection is a major risk factor for developing hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), and HBV X protein (HBx) acts as cofactor in hepatocarcinogenesis. In liver tumors from animals modeling HBx- and HBV-mediated hepato-carcinogenesis, downregulation of chromatin regulating proteins SUZ12 and ZNF198 induces expression of several genes, including epithelial cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM). EpCAM upregulation occurs in HBV-mediated HCCs and hepatic cancer stem cells, by a mechanism not understood. Herein we demonstrate HBx induces EpCAM expression via active DNA demethylation. In hepatocytes, EpCAM is silenced by polycomb repressive complex 2 (PRC2) and ZNF198/LSD1/Co-REST/HDAC1 chromatin-modifying complexes. Cells with stable knockdown of SUZ12, an essential PRC2 subunit, upon HBx expression demethylate a CpG dinucleotide located adjacent to NF-κB/RelA half-site. This NF-κB/RelA site is in a CpG island downstream from EpCAM transcriptional start site (TSS). Chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) assays demonstrate HBx-dependent RelA occupancy of NF-κB half-site, whereas RelA knockdown suppresses CpG demethylation and EpCAM expression. Tumor necrosis factor-α activates RelA, propagating demethylation to nearby CpG sites, shown by sodium bisulfite sequencing. RelA-dependent demethylation occurring upon HBx expression requires methyltrasferase EZH2, TET2 a key factor in cytosine demethylation and inactive DNMT3L, shown by knockdown assays and sodium bisulfite sequencing. Co-immunoprecipitations and sequential ChIP assays demonstrate that RelA in the presence of HBx forms a complex with EZH2, TET2 and DNMT3L, although the role of DNMT3L remains to be understood. Interestingly, the human EpCAM gene also has a CpG island downstream from its TSS, and a NF-κB-binding site flanked by CpGs. HepG2 cells derived from human HCC exhibit demethylation of these NF-κB-flanking CpG sites, and HBV replication propagates demethylation to nearby CpG sites. DLK1, another PRC2 target gene, also upregulated in HBV-mediated HCCs, is demethylated in liver tumors at CpG dinucleotides flanking the NF-κB-binding sequence, supporting that this active DNA demethylation mechanism functions during oncogenic transformation.

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