Aberrant transcription of the repeat RNAs is a common feature in epithelial cancers including PDAC, but the function of these non-coding RNAs in cancer development is relatively unexplored. We have found that these repeat RNAs are sensed and replicate like retroviruses, and now have identified the ability of these viral-like elements to be transmitted from cancer cells through extracellular vesicles (EVs). PDAC-derived EVs applied to cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) activates interferon-stimulated genes (ISGs) and is able to drive CAFs towards an inflammatory CAF (iCAF) phenotype with concordant loss of myofibroblast CAF (myCAF) marker genes. Using in-vitro transcription, we demonstrate that individual repeat RNAs (HSATII, HERVK (env), LINE-1 5’UTR and LINE-1 3’UTR) are sufficient to induce ISG response in CAFs with HSATII and HERVK (env) having the most potent ISG response. In contrast, PDAC cells were found to induce epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) with loss of epithelial gene expression. To determine the potential sensor of HSATII repeat RNAs, we utilized CRISPR/Cas9 knockout of the viral RNA sensors RIG-I, MDA5, and MAVS in PDAC and CAF cells. Notably, these sensors were important for PDAC repeat RNA sensing and response, but not in CAF cells. Evaluating the innate immune pathway further downstream, we used genetic knockout of IRF3 with CRISPR/Cas9 knockout and find significant downregulation of key EMT genes that are shared with myCAF markers (ACTA2, FN1, SERPINE1). Interestingly, HSATII RNA activated IRF3 dependent EMT genes in PDAC cells, but induced IRF3 degradation in CAF cells that results in loss of myCAF gene expression. Furthermore, we found that conditioned media from HSATII transfected CAF activates EMT-related gene expression (ACTA2, FN1, SERPINE1) in PDAC cell lines, which indicates an cell extrinsic mechanism to augment EMT induction in PDAC cells. We utilized next generation spatial transcriptomic platforms NanoString GeoMx and CosMx to understand the spatial distribution of repeat RNAs in human PDAC tumors. We find that repeat RNAs can be found as a gradient from PDAC cells to the surround tumor microenvironment consistent with delivery of these RNA species. Analysis of over 300,000 individual cells in 3 PDAC tumor specimens, we find that high repeat PDAC cells have lost epithelial gene expression and high repeat CAFs have lost myCAF gene expression. Altogether, these findings support the “infection” of repeat RNAs disrupts cellular identity in both tumor cells and the CAF microenvironment as a mechanism for tumor progression.

Citation Format: Eunae You, Luli Zou, Patrick Danaher, Ildiko E. Phillips, Michael J. Raabe, Bidish Patel, Amaya Pankaj, Khrystyna North, Sean Kim, Youngmi Kim, Martin Aryee, David T. Ting. Repeat RNA dysregulation of cellular states in the pancreatic cancer microenvironment [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the AACR Special Conference on Pancreatic Cancer; 2022 Sep 13-16; Boston, MA. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2022;82(22 Suppl):Abstract nr C038.