Endogenous APOBEC3B overexpression characterizes HPV-positive and HPV-negative oral epithelial dysplasias and head and neck cancers

Argyris PP, Wilkinson PE, Jarvis MC, Magliocca KR, Patel MR, Vogel RI, Gopalakrishnan R, Koutlas IG, Harris RS.


The DNA cytosine deaminase APOBEC3B (A3B) is a newly recognized endogenous source of mutations in a range of human tumors, including head/neck cancer. A3B inflicts C-to-T and C-to-G base substitutions in 5'-TCA/T trinucleotide motifs, contributes to accelerated rates of tumor development, and affects clinical outcomes in a variety of cancer types. High-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) infection causes A3B overexpression, and HPV-positive cervical and head/neck cancers are among tumor types with the highest degree of APOBEC signature mutations. A3B overexpression in HPV-positive tumor types is caused by the viral E6/E7 oncoproteins and may be an early off-to-on switch in tumorigenesis. In comparison, less is known about the molecular mechanisms responsible for A3B overexpression in HPV-negative head/neck cancers. Here, we utilize an immunohistochemical approach to determine whether A3B is turned from off-to-on or if it undergoes a more gradual transition to overexpression in HPV-negative head/neck cancers. As positive controls, almost all HPV-positive oral epithelial dysplasias and oropharyngeal cancers showed high levels of nuclear A3B staining regardless of diagnosis. As negative controls, A3B levels were low in phenotypically normal epithelium adjacent to cancer and oral epithelial hyperplasias. Interestingly, HPV-negative and low-grade oral epithelial dysplasias showed intermediate A3B levels, while high-grade oral dysplasias showed high A3B levels similar to oral squamous cell carcinomas. A3B levels were highest in grade 2 and grade 3 oral squamous cell carcinomas. In addition, a strong positive association was found between nuclear A3B and Ki67 scores suggesting a linkage to the cell cycle. Overall, these results support a model in which gradual activation of A3B expression occurs during HPV-negative tumor development and suggest that A3B overexpression may provide a marker for advanced grade oral dysplasia and cancer.