Human papillomavirus (HPV)-negative head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs) are deadly and common cancers. Recent genomic studies implicate multiple genetic pathways, including cell signaling, cell cycle and immune evasion, in their development. Here we analyze public data sets and uncover a previously unappreciated role of epigenome deregulation in the genesis of 13% of HPV-negative HNSCCs. Specifically, we identify novel recurrent mutations encoding p.Lys36Met (K36M) alterations in multiple H3 histone genes. We further validate the presence of these alterations in multiple independent HNSCC data sets and show that, along with previously described NSD1 mutations, they correspond to a specific DNA methylation cluster. The K36M substitution and NSD1 defects converge on altering methylation of histone H3 at K36 (H3K36), subsequently blocking cellular differentiation and promoting oncogenesis. Our data further indicate limited redundancy for NSD family members in HPV-negative HNSCCs and suggest a potential role for impaired H3K36 methylation in their development. Further investigation of drugs targeting chromatin regulators is warranted in HPV-negative HNSCCs driven by aberrant H3K36 methylation.

Citation Format: Chao Lu, Simon Papillon-Cavanagh, Tenzin Gayden, Leonie G. Mikael, Denise Bechet, Christina Karamboulas, Laurie Ailles, Jason Karamchandani, Dylan M. Marchione, Benjamin A. Garcia, Ilan Weinreb, David Goldstein, Peter W. Lewis, Octavia-Maria Dancu, Sandeep Dhaliwal, William Stecho, Christopher J. Howlett, Joe S. Mymryk, John W. Barrett, Anthony C. Nichols, C David Allis, Jacek Majewski, Nada Jabado. Impaired H3K36 methylation defines a subset of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the AACR-AHNS Head and Neck Cancer Conference: Optimizing Survival and Quality of Life through Basic, Clinical, and Translational Research; April 23-25, 2017; San Diego, CA. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Clin Cancer Res 2017;23(23_Suppl):Abstract nr 08.