Aggressive PDACs Show Hypomethylation of Repetitive Elements and the Execution of an Intrinsic IFN Program Linked to a Ductal Cell of Origin

Espinet, E., Gu, Z., Imbusch, C. D., Giese, N. A., Buscher, M., Safavi, M., Weisenburger, S., Klein, C., Vogel, V., Falcone, M., Insua-Rodriguez, J., Reitberger, M., Thiel, V., Kossi, S. O., Muckenhuber, A., Sarai, K., Lee, A. Y. L., Backx, E., Zarei, S., Gaida, M. M., Rodriguez-Paredes, M., Donato, E., Yen, H. Y., Eils, R., Schlesner, M., Pfarr, N., Hackert, T., Plass, C., Brors, B., Steiger, K., Weichenhan, D., Arda, H. E., Rooman, I., Kopp, J. L., Strobel, O., Weichert, W., Sprick, M. R., and Trumpp, A. (2021). Cancer Discov 11, 638-659


Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is characterized by extensive desmoplasia, which challenges the molecular analyses of bulk tumor samples. Here we FACS-purified epithelial cells from human PDAC and normal pancreas and derived their genome-wide transcriptome and DNA methylome landscapes. Clustering based on DNA methylation revealed two distinct PDAC groups displaying different methylation patterns at regions encoding repeat elements. Methylationlow tumors are characterized by higher expression of endogenous retroviral transcripts and double-stranded RNA sensors, which lead to a cell-intrinsic activation of an interferon signature (IFNsign). This results in a protumorigenic microenvironment and poor patient outcome. Methylationlow/IFNsignhigh and Methylationhigh/IFNsignlow PDAC cells preserve lineage traits, respective of normal ductal or acinar pancreatic cells. Moreover, ductal-derived Kras G12D/Trp53 -/- mouse PDACs show higher expression of IFNsign compared with acinar-derived counterparts. Collectively, our data point to two different origins and etiologies of human PDACs, with the aggressive Methylationlow/IFNsignhigh subtype potentially targetable by agents blocking intrinsic IFN signaling. SIGNIFICANCE: The mutational landscapes of PDAC alone cannot explain the observed interpatient heterogeneity. We identified two PDAC subtypes characterized by differential DNA methylation, preserving traits from normal ductal/acinar cells associated with IFN signaling. Our work suggests that epigenetic traits and the cell of origin contribute to PDAC heterogeneity.