Cancer cells defective in homologous recombination (HR) are responsive to DNA-crosslinking chemotherapies, PARP inhibitors, and inhibitors of polymerase theta (Pol θ), a key mediator of the backup pathway alternative end-joining. Such cancers include those with pathogenic biallelic alterations in core HR genes and another cohort of cases that exhibit sensitivity to the same agents and harbor genomic hallmarks of HR deficiency (HRD). These HRD signatures include a single-base substitution pattern, large rearrangements, characteristic tandem duplications, and small deletions. Here, we used what is now known about the backup pathway alternative end-joining (Alt-EJ) through the key factor Pol θ to design and test novel signatures of polymerase theta–mediated (TMEJ) repair. We generated two novel signatures; a signature composed of small deletions with microhomology and another consisting of small, templated insertions (TINS). We find that TINS consistent with TMEJ repair are highly specific to tumors with pathogenic biallelic mutations in BRCA2 and that high TINS genomic signature content in advanced ovarian cancers associate with overall survival following treatment with platinum agents. In addition, the combination of TINS with other HRD metrics significantly improves the association of platinum sensitivity with survival compared with current state-of-the-art signatures.


Small, templated insertions indicative of theta-mediated end-joining likely can be used in conjunction with other HRD mutational signatures as a prognostic tool for patient response to therapies targeting HR deficiency.

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