Chuang YH, et al. Cancers (Basel) 2020.
Although many studies have shown the association between smoking and the increased incidence and adverse prognosis of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), the mechanisms and pharmaceutical targets involved remain unclear. Here, we integrated gene expression signatures, genetic alterations, and survival analyses to identify prognostic indicators and therapeutic targets for smoking HNSCC patients, and we discovered that the FDA-approved drug varenicline inhibits the target for cancer
cell migration/invasion. We first identified 18 smoking-related and prognostic genes for HNSCC by using RNA-Seq and clinical follow-up data. One of these genes, CHRNB4 (neuronal acetylcholine receptor subunit beta-4), increased the risk of death by approximately threefold in CHRNB4-high expression smokers compared to CHRNB4-low expression smokers (log rank, p = 0.00042; hazard ratio, 2.82; 95% CI, 1.55-5.14), former smokers, and non-smokers. Furthermore, we examined the functional enrichment of co-regulated genes of CHRNB4 and its 246 frequently occurring copy number alterations (CNAs). We found that these genes were involved in promoting angiogenesis, resisting cell death, and sustaining proliferation, and contributed to much worse outcomes for CHRNB4-high patients. Finally, we performed CHRNB4 gene editing and drug inhibition assays, and the results validate these observations. In summary, our study suggests that CHRNB4 is a prognostic indicator for smoking HNSCC patients and provides a potential new therapeutic drug to prevent recurrence or distant metastasis.