Catastrophic rearrangements in the genome occurring as early as childhood and adolescence can lead to the development of lung cancer in later years in non-smokers.
This finding, published in Cell, helps explain how some non-smoking-related lung cancers develop.
Researchers at KAIST, Seoul National University and their collaborators confirmed that gene fusions in non-smokers mostly occur early on, sometimes as early as childhood or adolescence, and on average about three decades before cancer is diagnosed.
The study showed that these mutant lung cells, harbouring oncogenic seeds, remain dormant for several decades until a number of further mutations accumulate sufficiently for progression into cancer.
This is the first study to reveal the landscape of genome structural variations in lung adenocarcinoma.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide, and lung adenocarcinoma is its most common type.
Most lung adenocarcinomas are associated with chronic smoking, but about a fourth develop in non-smokers.
Precisely what happens in non-smokers for this cancer to develop is not clearly understood.
Researchers analysed the genomes of 138 lung adenocarcinoma patients, including smokers and non-smokers, with whole-genome sequencing technologies.
They explored DNA damage that induced neoplastic transformation.
Lung adenocarcinomas that originated from chronic smoking, referred to as signature 4-high (S4-high) cancers in the study, showed several distinguishing features compared to smoking-unrelated cancers (S4-low).
People in the S4-high group were largely older, men and had more frequent mutations in a cancer-related gene called KRAS.
Cancer genomes in the S4-high group were hypermutated with simple mutational classes, such as the substitution, insertion, or deletion of a single base, the building block of DNA.
But the story was very different in the S4-low group.
Generally, mutational profiles in this group were much more silent than the S4-high group.
However, all cancer-related gene fusions, which are abnormally activated from the merging of two originally separate genes, were exclusively observed in the S4-low group.
The patterns of genomic structural changes underlying gene fusions suggest that about three in four cases of gene fusions emerged from a single cellular crisis causing massive genomic fragmentation and subsequent imprecise repair in normal lung epithelium.
Most strikingly, these major genomic rearrangements, which led to the development of lung adenocarcinoma, are very likely to be acquired decades before cancer diagnosis.
The researchers used genomic archaeology techniques to trace the timing of when the catastrophes took place.
Researchers started this study seven years ago when they discovered the expression of the KIF5B-RET gene fusion in lung adenocarcinoma for the first time.
Professor Young-Seok Ju, co-lead author from the Graduate School of Medical Science and Engineering at KAIST says, "It is remarkable that oncogenesis can begin by a massive shattering of chromosomes early in life. Our study immediately raises a new question: What induces the mutational catastrophe in our normal lung epithelium."
Professor Young Tae Kim, co-lead author from Seoul National University says, "We hope this work will help us get one step closer to precision medicine for lung cancer patients."
The research team plans to further focus on the molecular mechanisms that stimulate complex rearrangements in the body, through screening the genomic structures of fusion genes in other cancer types.
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