Virus transcript levels and cell growth rates after naturally occurring HPV16 integration events in basal cervical keratinocytes

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Cervical carcinogenesis is characterized by a clonal selection process in which the high-risk human papillomavirus (HRHPV) genome usually changes from the extra-chromosomal (episomal) state seen in productive infections to DNA that is integrated into host chromosomes. However, it is not clear whether all HRHPV integration events provide cells with a selective growth advantage compared with the episome-containing cells from which they originate. It is also unclear whether selection of cells containing a particular integrant from a mixed population simply reflects the highest levels of virus oncogene expression or has additional determinants. These early events in cervical carcinogenesis cannot readily be addressed by cross-sectional studies of clinical samples. We used the W12 model system to generate a panel of cervical squamous cell clones that were derived from an identical background under non-competitive conditions and differed only by the genomic site of HPV16 integration. Compared with the ‘baseline’ episome-containing cells from which they were isolated, only 9/17 clones (53%) showed significantly greater growth rates and only 7/17 (41%) showed significantly greater expression of the major virus oncogenes E7/E6. There were significant variations in levels of HPV16 transcription per DNA template, changes that were associated with histone modifications in the integrated virus chromatin. Cell growth rates showed only weak and non-significant associations with protein and mRNA levels for E7, E6, and the mean E7/E6 values. We conclude that HPV16 integration in basal cervical cells does not necessarily lead to increased levels of virus oncogenes, or to a competitive growth advantage, when compared with the initiating episome-containing cells.

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