J Cancer 2020; 11(2):403-413. doi:10.7150/jca.31435 This issue

Research Paper

Aberrant AFP expression characterizes a subset of hepatocellular carcinoma with distinct gene expression patterns and inferior prognosis

Wei Chen*, Jianjun Peng*, Jinning Ye, Weigang Dai, Guanghua Li, Yulong He

Department of Gastrointestinal Surgery, First Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-sen University, 510080 Guangzhou, Guangdong province, People's Republic of China.
* Wei Chen and Jianjun Peng contributed equally to this work.

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/). See http://ivyspring.com/terms for full terms and conditions.
Chen W, Peng J, Ye J, Dai W, Li G, He Y. Aberrant AFP expression characterizes a subset of hepatocellular carcinoma with distinct gene expression patterns and inferior prognosis. J Cancer 2020; 11(2):403-413. doi:10.7150/jca.31435. Available from https://www.jcancer.org/v11p0403.htm

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Background Serum tumor markers are ubiquitously used in the clinic for cancer screening. However, the mechanisms accounting for the elevated levels of the serum tumor markers remain to be explored.

Methods We performed a pan-cancer analysis of serum alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) and prostate-specific antigen (PSA). The relation between concentration of serum tumor markers and the expression of their coding genes was assessed. Then the expression of AFP and its genomic background in hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer) was studied.

Results High expression of AFP mRNA was found mainly in liver cancer. In gastric cancer, breast cancer and lung cancer, high AFP mRNA expression was also discovered occasionally. In liver cancer patients, serum AFP levels correlated significantly with AFP mRNA expression in cancer tissues (r = 0.72, p = 1.6e-45). Whole transcriptome analysis revealed that serum AFP levels clearly separated liver cancer into two classes with distinct expression profiles according to PCA analysis. Gene co-expression analysis revealed that AFP expression was connected to a module enriched with genes accounting for cell cycle and cell proliferation regulation. In addition, high AFP expression was associated with the molecular classification of liver cancer, including iCluster (Chi-square: 16.86, P = 0.0002). Methylation analysis revealed de-methylation of AFP promoter occurred in some liver cancer tissues, which was significantly related to AFP mRNA expression. Survival analysis indicated high serum AFP levels was prognostic of poorer survival of the liver cancer patients (Log-rank test: p = 0.046). This was confirmed by an independent dataset in which liver cancer patients with high serum AFP also had poorer survival (Log-rank test: p = 0.024).

Conclusion High expression of AFP defined a subtype of liver cancer with distinct gene expression profiles and clinical features. De-methylation of cytosine from CpG di-nucleotides in AFP promoter may be the cause of AFP re-expression in adult human liver cancer tissue.

Keywords: AFP expression, liver cancer, De-methylation