Aberrant DNA methylation is an important cancer hallmark, yet the dynamics of DNA methylation changes in human carcinogenesis remain largely unexplored. Moreover, the role of DNA methylation for prediction of clinical outcome is still uncertain and confined to specific cancers. Here we perform the most comprehensive study of DNA methylation changes throughout human carcinogenesis, analysing 27,578 CpGs in each of 1,475 samples, ranging from normal cells in advance of non-invasive neoplastic transformation to non-invasive and invasive cancers and metastatic tissue. We demonstrate that hypermethylation at stem cell PolyComb Group Target genes (PCGTs) occurs in cytologically normal cells three years in advance of the first morphological neoplastic changes, while hypomethylation occurs preferentially at CpGs which are heavily Methylated in Embryonic Stem Cells (MESCs) and increases significantly with cancer invasion in both the epithelial and stromal tumour compartments. In contrast to PCGT hypermethylation, MESC hypomethylation progresses significantly from primary to metastatic cancer and defines a poor prognostic signature in four different gynaecological cancers. Finally, we associate expression of TET enzymes, which are involved in active DNA demethylation, to MESC hypomethylation in cancer. These findings have major implications for cancer and embryonic stem cell biology and establish the importance of systemic DNA hypomethylation for predicting prognosis in a wide range of different cancers.
DNA methylation is an important chemical modification of DNA that can affect and regulate the activity of genes in human tissue. Abnormal DNA methylation and its subsequent effects on gene activity are a hallmark of cancer, yet when precisely these DNA methylation changes occur and how they contribute to the development of cancer remains largely unexplored. In this work we measure the methylation state of DNA at over 14,000 genes in over 1,475 samples, including normal and benign cells, invasive cancers, and metastatic cancer tissue. Using cervical cancer as a model, we show that gain of abnormal methylation at genes typically un-methylated in stem cells can be detected up to 3 years in advance of the appearance of pre-cancerous cells, while those genes typically methylated in stem cells lose this methylation progressively throughout cancer development. Furthermore, we discover that this process of methylation loss during cancer progression is a marker of poor disease outcome common to all four major women-specific cancers: breast, ovarian, endometrial, and cervical cancers. Finally we demonstrate the relationship between loss of methylation and cancer-specific over-production of a specific protein known to play an active role in removing methylation from DNA. Taken together these findings highlight the complex nature of DNA methylation dynamics in cancer development as well as their potential exploitation for clinical gain.