Piwil2 is reactivated by HPV oncoproteins and initiates cell reprogramming via epigenetic regulation during cervical cancer tumorigenesis

Dingqing Feng, Keqin Yan, Ying Zhou, Haiyan Liang, Jing Liang, Weidong Zhao, Zhongjun Dong, Bin Ling
Oncotarget 2016 October 4, 7 (40): 64575-64588
The human papillomavirus (HPV) oncoproteins E6 and E7 are risk factors that are primarily responsible for the initiation and progression of cervical cancer, and they play a key role in immortalization and transformation by reprogramming differentiating host epithelial cells. It is unclear how cervical epithelial cells transform into tumor-initiating cells (TICs). Here, we observed that the germ stem cell protein Piwil2 is expressed in pre-cancerous and malignant lesions of the cervix and cervical cancer cell lines with the exception of the non-HPV-infected C33a cell line. Knockdown of Piwil2 by shRNA led to a marked reduction in proliferation and colony formation, in vivo tumorigenicity, chemo-resistance, and the proportion of cancer stem-like cells. In contrast, Piwil2 overexpression induced malignant transformation of HaCaT cells and the acquisition of tumor-initiating capabilities. Gene-set enrichment analysis revealed embryonic stem cell (ESC) identity, malignant biological behavior, and specifically, activation targets of the cell reprogramming factors c-Myc, Klf4, Nanog, Oct4, and Sox2 in Piwil2-overexpressing HaCaT cells. We further confirmed that E6 and E7 reactivated Piwil2 and that E6 and E7 overexpression resulted in a similar gene-set enrichment pattern as Piwil2 overexpression in HaCaT cells. Moreover, Piwil2 overexpression or E6 and E7 activation induced H3K9 acetylation but reduced H3K9 trimethylation, which contributed to the epigenetic reprogramming and ESC signature maintenance, as predicted previously. Our study demonstrates that Piwil2, reactivated by the HPV oncoproteins E6 and E7, plays an essential role in the transformation of cervical epithelial cells to TICs via epigenetics-based cell reprogramming.

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