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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Science. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2014 May 20.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC4027969

Recurrent Hemizygous Deletions in Cancers May Optimize Proliferative Potential


Tumors exhibit numerous recurrent hemizygous focal deletions that contain no known tumor suppressors and are poorly understood. To investigate whether these regions contribute to tumorigenesis, we searched genetically for genes with cancer-relevant properties within these hemizygous deletions. We identified STOP and GO genes, which negatively and positively regulate proliferation, respectively. STOP genes include many known tumor suppressors, whereas GO genes are enriched for essential genes. Analysis of their chromosomal distribution revealed that recurring deletions preferentially over represent STOP genes and under represent GO genes. We propose a hypothesis called the cancer gene island model whereby gene islands encompassing high densities of STOP genes and low densities of GO genes are hemizygously deleted to maximize proliferative fitness through cumulative haploinsufficiencies. Because hundreds to thousands of genes are hemizygously deleted per tumor, this mechanism may help drive tumorigenesis across many cancer types.

Cancer progression is directed by alterations in oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes (TSGs) that provide a competitive advantage to increase proliferation, survival, and metastasis (1-3). The cancer genome is riddled with amplifications, deletions, rearrangements, point mutations, loss of heterozygosity (LOH), and epigenetic changes that collectively result in tumorigenesis (4-7). How these changes contribute to the disease is a central question in cancer biology. In his “two-hit hypothesis” Knudson proposed that two mutations in the same gene are required for tumorigenesis, indicating a recessive disease (8). In addition, there are now several examples of haploinsufficient TSGs (9-11). Current models do not explain the recent observation that hemizygous recurrent deletions are found in most tumors (12, 13). Whether multiple genes within such regions contribute to the tumorigenic phenotype remains to be elucidated.

Recent analysis of 3131 tumors revealed 82 regions of recurrent focal deletion (13), averaging six deletions per tumor and 24 genes per deletion (Figure 1C, fig. S1A, table S1) (14). Breast, gastric, bladder, pancreatic and ovarian cancers average ≥10 deletions/tumor (Fig. 1A). Several possible explanations exist for the roles of these deletions in tumorigenesis. First, they may contain a recessive TSG where mutation or epigenetic silencing of the second allele is necessary for tumorigenesis. Second, they may recur because they mark unstable genomic regions, such as fragile sites (12). Finally, it is possible that single-copy loss may provide a selective advantage irrespective of changes in the remaining allele.

Fig. 1
Most recurrent cancer deletions do not contain known or putative recessive TSGs

To address the possibility that recurrent deletions are enriched for recessive TSGs, we analyzed these regions for the presence of known recessive or putative TSGs. For this purpose we used a list from the Cancer Gene Census (15) and a list of putative TSGs we identified with homozygous loss-of-function (termination codon or frameshift) mutations from whole-genome sequencing of 526 tumors in COSMIC (Fig. 1B and tables S2 and S3) (16). Only 14 of 82 recurrent deletions contained a known TSG, and only 10 had a mutant or putative TSG, 6 of which were in a region with a known TSG (Figure 1C and fig. S1). Thus, only 18 of 82 deletions can be explained by known or putative recessive TSGs. This number may increase if gene silencing is as prevalent as point mutation for gene inactivation, but this remains to be determined across all cancers. These data suggest that in addition to the two-hit mechanism, an alternative mechanism may function to provide a selective advantage to these deletions.

Of the many altered processes promoting tumorigenesis, proliferation is likely to encompass the most genes as it is integrated into all developmental decisions. Cancer evolution relies on alterations that provide incremental increases in cell number- a function of cell duplication frequency coupled with cell survival efficiency. The average fitness increase of a single alteration in tumors is estimated to be 0.4% (17). Because subtle changes in proliferation rates can have profound effects on tumor fitness and clonal selection, we examined whether recurrent deletions affect regulators of cell proliferation. We define proliferation regulators as falling into two categories: suppressors of tumorigenesis and/or proliferation (STOP genes) that restrain proliferation, and growth enhancers and oncogenes (GO genes) that promote proliferation. By definition, STOP genes contain prominent TSGs that restrain proliferation (e.g. Cdk inhibitors, Rb, and p53), whereas GO genes include essential genes and some that simply enhance proliferation rates. The interplay between STOP and GO genes controls proliferation.

To identify candidate STOP genes, we performed a proliferation screen with a library containing 74,905 short hairpin RNAs (shRNAs) targeting 19,011 genes (18-20) in telomerase-immortalized human mammary epithelial cells (HMECs) (fig. S2A). We chose HMECs because they have intact TSG pathways and should hypothetically be a model for proliferation effects in early tumorigenesis where the neoplasms are less abnormal. By comparing the ratio of each shRNA’s abundance (end vs. initial sample) after eight population doublings, we identified enriched shRNAs (Fig. 2A, red). Screen data were analyzed as described (20) using significance analysis of microarray (SAM) to identify shRNAs consistently enriched by a factor of 1.8 or more across triplicates [false discovery rate (FDR) = 5%], representing ≥ 7.5% increase in cell number per generation. This identified 4496 (6.0%) enriched shRNAs targeting 3582 (18.8%) candidate STOP genes (Fig. 2B and table S4). Of the shRNAs tested, 51% recapitulated in a 5-day multi-color competition assay (MCA) (21) (figs. S2, B, and C).

Fig. 2
Identification of STOP gene candidates that restrain cell proliferation

To validate more genes and eliminate off-target effects, we used a large-scale sublibrary validation (Fig. 2C). From 3700 candidate STOP genes from multiple screens (Fig. 2, A and B, fig. S3, A and B, and tables S4 and S5), we chose 1555 genes for validation studies by including only those genes that either: i) increased proliferation upon depletion in an independent triplicate re-screen, ii) validated by MCA, or iii) were enriched by a factor >2 with three or more independent shRNAs. We synthesized a sublibrary against this higher-confidence list with 12 shRNAs per gene and 50 negative control shRNAs targeting firefly luciferase (FF). We performed a secondary validation screen in triplicate and deconvolved samples by Illumina sequencing. Data were normalized for the number of sequencing reads per sample and the mean of 50 FF shRNAs (table S6) and analyzed using SAM with a FDR = 5%. Sixty percent of the shRNAs increased cell proliferation by a factor of 2 or more (Fig. 2D and table S7). Many STOP candidates validated with 4 or more shRNAs enriched by a factor of ≥ 2 (1406 genes), ≥ 4 (878 genes), or ≥ 6 (235 genes) (Fig. 2E). Furthermore, we observed a much larger fraction of shRNAs strongly enriching by a factor of ≥ 4 (30.2%) or ≥ 6 (13.3%) relative to our primary screen. Examination of shRNAs against the known proliferation regulators p53 and Rb revealed that 9 of 13 p53 shRNAs and 9 of 12 Rb shRNAs increased cell proliferation by a factor of 2 or more (fig. S4A). These data indicate that the validation screen can distinguish between authentic regulators of cell proliferation and false-positives.

Using a stringent cutoff, analysis of the 878 STOP genes for which 4 or more shRNAs each resulted in a factor of ≥ 4 increase in cell proliferation revealed many genes involved in cell cycle regulation, apoptosis and autophagy (Fig. 2F and table S7) and numerous TSGs (fig. S4B). To establish statistical significance for TSG enrichment, we compared our primary and validation gene sets to the list of known TSGs defined by the Cancer Gene Census (Fig. 3A and table S2) (15). This comparison revealed significant enrichment with 44.4% more TSGs than expected in the primary STOP gene set (P = 0.032) and 100% more TSGs than expected in the validation screen (P = 9.1 × 10−3). We also compared the STOP candidates to the list of loss-of-function mutations in the 526 tumors in the COSMIC database (Fig. 3B and table S8) (16) and found significant enrichment of primary and validation screen STOP genes, with 12.9% more primary STOP genes (P = 1.0 × 10−3) and 16.1% more validation STOP genes (P = 0.019) exhibiting loss-of-function mutations in cancers. These data indicate that our STOP lists are likely to be enriched for novel TSGs and that genes with loss-of-function mutations found in tumors are enriched for negative regulators of proliferation, arguing that cell proliferation in this HMEC system is relevant to in vivo tumorigenesis.

Fig. 3
STOP genes are enriched for known TSGs and genes mutant or deleted in cancer

To examine deletions, we mapped the chromosomal locations of STOP genes relative to recurrent deletions from 3131 tumors (13) (Fig. 3B and table S9). We observed a significant enrichment (P = 9.1 × 10−4) of genes located in recurring deletions in the primary STOP gene set, with 13.6% more genes than expected. The enrichment improved with the validation set to 19.1% more genes than expected (P = 5.8 × 10−3). This enrichment indicates that a significant proportion of the STOP genes identified are likely to functionally restrain tumorigenesis. Additionally, of the 451 observed overlapping genes, to our knowledge only 6 have been previously implicated as bona fide TSGs (SMAD4, RB1, ATM, APC, PTEN, and TP53), suggesting the existence of many previously undescribed TSGs on this list. The observation that hemizygous recurrent focal deletions contain more STOP genes than expected suggests that multiple genes in each region contribute to tumorigenesis, possibly through haploinsufficiency.

The recurrent deletions contain more STOP genes than predicted if only one gene per deletion were contributing to the phenotype. If these deletions preferentially select regions with the highest densities of STOP genes, then one might expect that the STOP gene distribution would be significantly different in the recurrent deletions than in other regions of the genome. Thus, we examined the density of STOP gene location within the 82 recurrent deletion peaks relative to the rest of the genome (13). To determine the likelihood of observing the same degree of STOP gene clustering as seen in actual recurrent deletions, we performed a Monte Carlo permutation analysis in which we compared the genes in the original 82 deletion peaks to those generated by random permutation of regions (containing the same number of genes) across a circularized genome. During permutation, the distance between the deletions was fixed to avoid deletion overlaps, and the original deletions were masked from the genome to prevent resampling. We performed 1000 permutations to determine how frequently the same or greater density of STOP genes was observed in randomized deletions, and found that existing cancer deletions specifically encompass regions with high STOP gene density (Fig. 3C and fig. S5A). Significant clustering of STOP genes within recurrent cancer deletions was observed with gene sets from our primary (P = 5.0 × 10−3) and validation screens (P = 7.0 × 10−3). Thus, STOP gene densities equal to that found in recurring deletions were identified only 5 to 7 out of 1000 permutations.

Loss of multiple STOP genes per deletion suggests that cancer cells optimize their proliferative fitness. Increased frequencies of deletions with clusters of STOP genes could occur because the cell now has multiple options for losing the second allele of a recessive TSG or because of combined haploinsufficiencies. If the latter were a primary driving force by which hemizygous deletions fuel cancer, one would expect that deletions would avoid loss of one copy of essential genes that would limit fitness. To test this, we assembled an in silico list of high probability essential GO genes involved in critical cellular processes as annotated by Kyoto Encyclopedia of Genes and Genomes (KEGG) pathway analysis including DNA, RNA, protein, and fatty acid synthesis (table S10) encompassing 473 genes. This set demonstrated a significant depletion (P = 0.012) from recurrent deletion regions with 28.3% fewer genes present in deletion regions than expected (Fig. 4A). This in silico analysis suggests that the loss of a single copy of GO genes has a negative impact on cellular fitness.

Fig. 4
Hemizygous focal deletions avoid essential GO genes

To independently test this hypothesis, we turned to the other arm of our screen that identified candidate GO genes whose depletion limits proliferation and survival. Because both normal and cancer cells are dependent on these essential GO genes, we analyzed data from proliferation screens on HMECs, one normal prostate epithelial cell line, and seven breast or prostate cancer cell lines for shRNAs that reduced cell proliferation and viability by a factor of ≥ 1.5 in five of the nine cell lines (table S11). This GO gene set is enriched for essential core cellular machinery such as the ribosome, spliceosome, RNA polymerase, and DNA replication required for proliferation (Fig. 4B). We observed a significant depletion (P = 7.6 × 10−3) of GO genes located in recurrent deletions, with 22.1% fewer GO genes than expected (Fig. 4C). When we examined the location of GO genes within recurrent deletions, we found that more than half (58.5%) of deletion regions contained zero GO genes. In contrast to STOP genes, Monte Carlo permutation analysis confirmed that recurrent deletions exist in regions with unusually low GO gene density (P = 0.011) (Fig. 4D).

A potential caveat to the interpretation that GO gene depletion reflects haploinsufficiency is that a substantial fraction of recurrent deletions might actually be homozygous. However, our examination of 611 cell lines used in the recurrent deletion analysis (13) revealed only 5.4% of all genes were ever homozygously deleted, similar to the 11% reported previously (12). Fewer than 1% of genes within deletion regions were homozygous, which suggests that the majority of focal deletions are hemizygous. This low level of homozygous deletion cannot account for the 22 to 28% depletion of GO genes observed, indicating that the absence is more likely due to haploinsufficiency of hemizygous deletions. If such frequent haploinsufficiency occurs among GO genes, by analogy, it is likely that other genes such as the STOP genes also display a similar frequency of haploinsufficiency; if so, this would imply that haploinsufficiency of both STOP and GO genes in sporadic tumors drives tumorigenesis. One possible explanation for this higher than expected frequency of haploinsufficiency is monoallelic expression, a phenomenon in which there is an imbalance in expression levels from the two alleles of a given gene. This imbalance may occur in up to 10% of genes (22). Deletion of the higher expressing allele could produce a more penetrant haploinsufficient phenotype.

Our analysis found that only 22% of recurrent deletion regions could potentially be explained by known or putative recessive TSG (Fig. 1C and fig. S1). If most recurrent deletions primarily represent passenger alterations caused by location in a deletion-prone region such as a fragile site, the genes in these regions should possess no special properties. However, we find the opposite to be true, namely that STOP and GO genes exhibit significantly skewed distributions in regions frequently deleted across cancers. Thus, an additional mechanism of cancer evolution may exist that involves selection of hemizygous somatic deletions encompassing high densities of STOP genes and low densities of GO genes. This strategy promotes net proliferation and survival due to the cumulative reduction in dosage of genes with tumor suppressive properties while avoiding deleterious effects due to reduced dosage of genes that promote proliferation.

Our analysis suggests that ~20% of human genes might display haploinsufficiency, which could have important implications for human health and development given the wide copy number variation seen in humans. Supporting this hypothesis of widespread haploinsufficiency, a number of genes thought to be classical two-hit tumor suppressors also display haploinsufficiency (9, 23, 24). To provide a simple way to discuss this hypothetical cumulative mechanism, we refer to it as the “cancer gene island model”. This model is consistent with the theory of clonal evolution because these deletions provide a selective value to the cell by allowing them to clonally expand, unlike a truly recessive TSG mutation.

Our study provides experimental and statistical evidence that large hemizygous deletions containing islands of clustered proliferation inhibitory genes are preferentially selected during tumorigenesis, indicating that cancers may exhibit properties of a contiguous gene syndrome. Partial gene dosage due to deletion of multiple adjacent genes in a single deletion region is known to cause several classical contiguous gene syndromes, such as 22q11.2 deletion syndrome. Although we have analyzed proliferation and survival genes, cancer-relevant haploinsufficient genes affecting other aspects of tumorigenesis may also exist in these deletions regions.

If a halving of gene dosage can cause a phenotype, then subtle increases in gene dosage may also. In addition to deletions, recurrent amplifications are also found in cancers (13). If the observations from the cancer gene island model can be extended to gain-of-function mutations, then amplification regions may show enrichment for GO genes whose overproduction enhances proliferation. Recent functional analyses of gene amplifications in hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) revealed that adjacent genes in the 11q13.3 amplicon (CCND1 and FGF19) and the 11q22 amplicon (BIRC2 and YAP1) are cancer-driving oncogenes in HCC (25, 26). Thus, some amplifications in cancer may also represent contiguous gene syndromes.

The enrichment for genes localized to deletions suggests that we have identified dozens of new TSGs in recurrent deletions. We have also likely identified more TSGs outside of these regions because the STOP gene set is (i) enriched for known TSGs, many of which are not found in recurrent deletions, and (ii) enriched for genes that undergo somatic loss-of-function mutation. Finally, this work also suggests that cells possess a substantial number of genes that restrain proliferation in vitro, which could be inactivated to promote clonal expansion during tumorigenesis in addition to the traditional driver genes currently known.

Given the prevalence of multiple, large, recurring hemizygous deletions encompassing skewed distributions of growth control genes in tumors, we propose that the elimination of cancer gene islands that optimize fitness through cumulative haploinsufficiencies may play an important role in driving tumorigenesis with implications on the way in which we think about cancer evolution.

Supplementary Material

Supplemental Online Data

Supplementary Table


We thank S. Forbes, A. Futreal, and M. Stratton for generously providing whole genome sequencing data from the COSMIC database, and C. Shaw, D. MacPherson, M. Emanuele, C. Thoma, and T. Westbrook, and members of the Elledge lab for helpful discussions and critical reading of this manuscript. Supported by grants from the National Human Genome Research Institute-funded Cancer Genome Atlas project (M.M); NIH grant U54CA143798 (R.B.); NIH, Stand Up to Cancer and the U.S. Department of Defese (S.J.E.); Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation postdoctoral fellowship KG080087 (N.L.S); American Cancer Society postdoctoral fellowship 116410-PF-09-078-01-MGO (Q.X.); and National Institute of General Medical Sciences Medical Sciences Training Program award T32GM07753 (C.H.M). S.J.E. is an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.


Supplementary Materials: Materials and Methods Supplementary Text Figs. S1 to S6 Tables S1 to S12 References: (27-32)

References and Notes

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