Ring1b-dependent epigenetic remodelling is an essential prerequisite for pancreatic carcinogenesis

Benitz, S., Straub, T., Mahajan, U. M., Mutter, J., Czemmel, S., Unruh, T., Wingerath, B., Deubler, S., Fahr, L., Cheng, T., Nahnsen, S., Bruns, P., Kong, B., Raulefs, S., Ceyhan, G. O., Mayerle, J., Steiger, K., Esposito, I., Kleeff, J., Michalski, C. W., and Regel, I. (2019). Gut 68, 2007-2018. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2018-317208


Besides well-defined genetic alterations, the dedifferentiation of mature acinar cells is an important prerequisite for pancreatic carcinogenesis. Acinar-specific genes controlling cell homeostasis are extensively downregulated during cancer development; however, the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. Now, we devised a novel in vitro strategy to determine genome-wide dynamics in the epigenetic landscape in pancreatic carcinogenesis.

With our in vitro carcinogenic sequence, we performed global gene expression analysis and ChIP sequencing for the histone modifications H3K4me3, H3K27me3 and H2AK119ub. Followed by a comprehensive bioinformatic approach, we captured gene clusters with extensive epigenetic and transcriptional remodelling. Relevance of Ring1b-catalysed H2AK119ub in acinar cell reprogramming was studied in an inducible Ring1b knockout mouse model. CRISPR/Cas9-mediated Ring1b ablation as well as drug-induced Ring1b inhibition were functionally characterised in pancreatic cancer cells.

The epigenome is vigorously modified during pancreatic carcinogenesis, defining cellular identity. Particularly, regulatory acinar cell transcription factors are epigenetically silenced by the Ring1b-catalysed histone modification H2AK119ub in acinar-to-ductal metaplasia and pancreatic cancer cells. Ring1b knockout mice showed greatly impaired acinar cell dedifferentiation and pancreatic tumour formation due to a retained expression of acinar differentiation genes. Depletion or drug-induced inhibition of Ring1b promoted tumour cell reprogramming towards a less aggressive phenotype.

Our data provide substantial evidence that the epigenetic silencing of acinar cell fate genes is a mandatory event in the development and progression of pancreatic cancer. Targeting the epigenetic repressor Ring1b could offer new therapeutic options.