Modeling cancer driver events in vitro using barrier bypass-clonal expansion assays and massively parallel sequencing

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The information on candidate cancer driver alterations available from public databases is often descriptive and of limited mechanistic insight, which poses difficulties for reliable distinction between true driver and passenger events. To address this challenge, we performed in-depth analysis of whole-exome sequencing data from cell lines generated by a barrier bypass-clonal expansion (BBCE) protocol. The employed strategy is based on carcinogen-driven immortalization of primary mouse embryonic fibroblasts and recapitulates early steps of cell transformation. Among the mutated genes were almost 200 COSMIC Cancer Gene Census genes, many of which were recurrently affected in the set of 25 immortalized cell lines. The alterations affected pathways regulating DNA damage response and repair, transcription and chromatin structure, cell cycle and cell death, as well as developmental pathways. The functional impact of the mutations was strongly supported by the manifestation of several known cancer hotspot mutations among the identified alterations. We identified a new set of genes encoding subunits of the BAF chromatin remodeling complex that exhibited Ras-mediated dependence on PRC2 histone methyltransferase activity, a finding that is similar to what has been observed for other BAF subunits in cancer cells. Among the affected BAF complex subunits, we determined Smarcd2 and Smarcc1 as putative driver candidates not yet fully identified by large-scale cancer genome sequencing projects. In addition, Ep400 displayed characteristics of a driver gene in that it showed a mutually exclusive mutation pattern when compared with mutations in the Trrap subunit of the TIP60 complex, both in the cell line panel and in a human tumor data set. We propose that the information generated by deep sequencing of the BBCE cell lines coupled with phenotypic analysis of the mutant cells can yield mechanistic insights into driver events relevant to human cancer development.

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