TGFβ promotes mesenchymal phenotype of pancreatic cancer cells, in part, through epigenetic activation of VAV1

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The highly homeostasis-resistant nature of cancer cells leads to their escape from treatment and to liver metastasis, which in turn makes pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) difficult to treat, especially the squamous/epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT)-like subtype. As the molecular mechanisms underlying tumour heterogeneity remain elusive, we investigated whether epigenetic regulation might explain inter-individual differences in the progression of specific subtypes. DNA methylation profiling performed on cancer tissues prior to chemo/radiotherapy identified one hypermethylated CpG site (CpG6882469) in the VAV1 gene body that was correlated with demethylation of two promoter CpGs (CpG6772370/CpG6772811) in both PDAC and peripheral blood. Transforming growth factor β treatment induced gene-body hypermethylation, dissociation of DNMT1 from the promoter, and VAV1 expression via SMAD4 and mutant KrasG12D. Pharmacological inhibition of TGFβ-VAV1 signalling decreased the squamous/EMT-like cancer cells, promoted nuclear VAV1 localization, and enhanced the efficacy of gemcitabine in prolonging the survival of KPfl/flC mice. Together, the three VAV1 CpGs serve as biomarkers for prognosis and early detection, and the TGFβ-VAV1 axis represents a therapeutic target.

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