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Can DNA Methylation Profiling Classify Histologic Subtypes and Grades in Soft Tissue Sarcoma?

BACKGROUND: A clear classification of the subtype and grade of soft tissue sarcoma is important for predicting prognosis and establishing treatment strategies. However, the rarity and heterogeneity of these tumors often make diagnosis difficult. In addition, it remains challenging to predict the response to chemotherapy and prognosis. Thus, we need a new method to help diagnose soft tissue sarcomas and determine treatment strategies in conjunction with traditional methods. Genetic alterations can be found in some subtypes of soft tissue sarcoma, but many other types show dysregulated gene expression attributed to epigenetic changes, such as DNA methylation status. However, research on DNA methylation profiles in soft tissue sarcoma is still insufficient to provide information to assist in diagnosis and therapeutic decisions.

QUESTIONS/PURPOSES: (1) Do DNA methylation profiles differ between normal tissue and soft tissue sarcoma? (2) Do DNA methylation profiles vary between different histologic subtypes of soft tissue sarcoma? (3) Do DNA methylation profiles differ based on tumor grade?

METHODS: Between January 2019 and December 2022, we treated 85 patients for soft tissue sarcomas. We considered patients whose specimens were approved for pilot research by the Human Biobank of St. Vincent's Hospital, The Catholic University of Korea, as potentially eligible. Based on this, 41% (35 patients) were eligible; 1% (one patient) was excluded because of gender mismatch between clinical and genetic data after controlling for data quality. Finally, 39 specimens (34 soft tissue sarcomas and five normal samples) were included from 34 patients who had clinical data. All tissue samples were collected intraoperatively. The five normal tissue samples were from muscle tissues. There were 20 female patients and 14 male patients, with a median age of 58 years (range 19 to 82 years). Genomic DNA was extracted from frozen tissue, and DNA methylation profiles were obtained. Genomic annotation of DNA methylation sites and hierarchical cluster analysis were performed to interpret results from DNA methylation profiling. A t-test was used to analyze different methylation probes. Benjamini-Hochberg-adjusted p value calculations were used to account for bias resulting from evaluating thousands of methylation sites.

RESULTS: The most common histologic subtypes were liposarcoma (n = 10) and leiomyosarcoma (n = 9). The tumor grade was Fédération Nationale des Centres de Lutte Contre Le Cancer Grades 1, 2, and 3 in 3, 15, and 16 patients, respectively. DNA methylation profiling demonstrated differences between soft tissue sarcoma and normal tissue as 21,188 cytosine-phosphate-guanine sites. Despite the small number of samples, 72 of these sites showed an adjusted p value of < 0.000001, suggesting a low probability of statistical errors. Among the 72 sites, 70 exhibited a hypermethylation pattern in soft tissue sarcoma, with only two sites showing a hypomethylation pattern. Thirty of 34 soft tissue sarcomas were distinguished from normal samples using hierarchical cluster analysis. There was a different methylation pattern between leiomyosarcoma and liposarcoma at 7445 sites. Using the data, hierarchical clustering analysis showed that liposarcoma was distinguished from leiomyosarcoma. When we used the same approach and included other subtypes with three or more samples, only leiomyosarcoma and myxofibrosarcoma were separated from the other subtypes, while liposarcoma and alveolar soft-part sarcoma were mixed with the others. When comparing DNA methylation profiles between low-grade (Grade 1) and high-grade (Grades 2 and 3) soft tissue sarcomas, a difference in methylation pattern was observed at 144 cytosine-phosphate-guanine sites. Among these, 132 cytosine-phosphate-guanine sites exhibited hypermethylation in the high-grade group compared with the low-grade group. Hierarchical clustering analysis showed a division into two groups, with most high-grade sarcomas (28 of 31) separated from the low-grade group and few (3 out of 31) clustered together with the low-grade group. However, three high-grade soft tissue sarcomas were grouped with the Grade 1 cluster, and all of these sarcomas were Grade 2. When comparing Grades 1 and 2 to Grade 3, Grade 3 tumors were separated from Grades 1 and 2.

CONCLUSION: We observed a different DNA methylation pattern between soft tissue sarcomas and normal tissues. Liposarcoma was distinguished from leiomyosarcoma using methylation profiling. High-grade soft tissue sarcoma samples showed a hypermethylation pattern compared with low-grade ones. Our findings indicate the need for research using methylation profiling to better understand the diverse biological characteristics of soft tissue sarcoma. Such research should include studies with sufficient samples and a variety of subtypes, as well as analyses of the expression and function of related genes. Additionally, efforts to link this research with clinical data related to treatment and prognosis are necessary.

LEVEL OF EVIDENCE: Level III, diagnostic study.

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