It is known that histologically normal margins may harbor genetic changes also found in the primary tumor, as shown by studies in HNSCC, including oral carcinomas . In oral carcinoma, local recurrence may arise from cancer cells left behind after surgery, undetectable by histopathology (minimal residual cancer), or from fields of genetically altered cells with the potential to give rise to a new carcinoma ; such fields precede the tumor and can be detected in the surrounding mucosa (surgical resection margins). Molecular changes that are commonly detected in margins as well as the corresponding tumor could indicate that pre-malignant or malignant clones were able to migrate to the surrounding tissue, giving rise to a primary tumor recurrence .
Herein, we show that global gene expression analysis of histologically normal margins and OSCC is a valuable approach for the identification of deregulated genes and pathways associated with OSCC recurrence. We used a multi-step procedure including our in-house whole-genome expression profiling experiment and a meta-analysis of five published microarray datasets to develop a 4-gene signature (MMP1, COL4A1, THBS2 and P4HA2) for prediction of recurrence in OSCC. This signature is based on genes found to be consistently over-expressed in OSCC as compared to normal oral mucosa; these genes are also over-expressed in a subset of histologically normal surgical resection margins, and their over-expression in such margins provides an indication of the presence of genetic changes before histological alterations can be detected by histology. Notably, our initial analyses reveal that this 4-gene signature predicted recurrence in two of the patients (Pts. 17 and 20, Table 2, validation set) who had not recurred until the latest update of the clinical data for recurrence status. Both of these patients had local recurrence, 8 and 19 months after surgery, respectively.
Genes identified in the 4-gene signature (MMP1, COL4A1, THBS2 and P4HA2) play major roles in cell-cell and/or cell-matrix interaction, and invasion. The direct and indirect partners of these genes are illustrated in Figure 2. The functions of two genes (P4HA2 and THBS2) in our signature of OSCC recurrence and their roles in cancer are not well understood. P4HA2 encodes a key enzyme involved in collagen synthesis, and its over-expression has been previously reported in papillary thyroid cancer . THBS2 is a matricellular protein that encodes an adhesive glycoprotein and interacts with other proteins to modulate cell-matrix interactions . Interestingly, THBS2 is associated with tumor growth in adult mouse tissues . The two other genes in our OSCC recurrence signature (COL4A1 and MMP1) are better characterized in cancer. COL4A1 encodes the major type IV alpha collagen chain and is one of the main components of basement membranes. Basement membranes have several important biological roles, and are essential for embryonic development, proper tissue architecture, and tissue remodeling . COL4A1 binds other collagens (COL4A2, 3, 4, 5 and 6), as well as LAMC2 (laminin, gamma 2), TGFB1 (transforming growth factor, beta 1), among other proteins (Figure 2) http://www.ihop-net.org, playing a relevant role in extracellular matrix-receptor interaction and focal adhesion . The extracellular matrix undergoes constant remodeling; during this process, proteins such as MMP1 can degrade the extracellular matrix proteins (e.g., collagen IV), and contribute to invasion and metastasis . In cancer, combined over-expression of COL4A1 and LAMC2 can distinguish OSCC from clinically normal oral cavity/oropharynx tissues ; this latter study suggests that COL4A1 over-expression may be a useful biomarker for early detection of malignancy.
MMP1 belongs to the family of matrix metalloproteases, which are key proteases involved in extracellular matrix (ECM) degradation . MMP1 encodes a collagenase, which is secreted by tumor cells as well as by stromal cells stimulated by the tumor; this secreted enzyme is responsible for breaking down interstitial collagens type I, II and III in normal physiological processes (e.g., tissue remodeling) as well as disease processes (e.g., cancer) . It is believed that the mechanism of up-regulation of most of the MMPs is likely due to transcriptional changes, which may occur following alterations in oncogenes and/or tumor suppressor genes . Indeed, MMP1 has been previously reported as consistently over-expressed in oral carcinoma compared to adjacent normal tissues [43–45] and suggested as a biomarker of malignant transformation in precursor lesions in oral cancer [44, 46, 47]. In HNSCC, over-expression of several genes with roles in invasion and metastasis, including MMPs, were previously associated with treatment failure of HNSCC . In our study, MMP1 was over-expressed in a subset of margins exclusively from patients with recurrent OSCC, and showed the highest fold-change of up-regulation in OSCC compared to margins. Our results are in agreement with the literature findings of MMP1 over-expression associated with progression of pre-malignant oral lesions; in this context, our data showing MMP1 over-expression in histologically normal surgical margins from patients who developed local recurrence support the notion that MMP1 may be involved in initial steps of cellular transformation and tumorigenesis, as well as invasion of oral carcinoma cells. Indeed, matrix metalloproteinases play an important role not only in invasion and metastasis but also in early stages of cancer development/progression .
Our data suggest that histologically normal surgical resection margins that over-express MMP1, COL4A1, THBS2 and P4HA2 are indicative of an increased risk of recurrence in OSCC. Patients at higher risk of recurrence could potentially benefit from closer disease monitoring and/or adjuvant post-operative radiation treatment, even in the absence of other clinical and histopathological indicators, such as advanced disease stage and perineural invasion.