BACKGROUND: Regional genomic copy number alterations (CNA) are observed in the vast majority of cancers. Besides specifically targeting well-known, canonical oncogenes, CNAs may also play more subtle roles in terms of modulating genetic potential and broad gene expression patterns of developing tumors. Any significant differences in the overall CNA patterns between different cancer types may thus point towards specific biological mechanisms acting in those cancers. In addition, differences among CNA profiles may prove valuable for cancer classifications beyond existing annotation systems.
PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: We have analyzed molecular-cytogenetic data from 25579 tumors samples, which were classified into 160 cancer types according to the International Classification of Disease (ICD) coding system. When correcting for differences in the overall CNA frequencies between cancer types, related cancers were often found to cluster together according to similarities in their CNA profiles. Based on a randomization approach, distance measures from the cluster dendrograms were used to identify those specific genomic regions that contributed significantly to this signal. This approach identified 43 non-neutral genomic regions whose propensity for the occurrence of copy number alterations varied with the type of cancer at hand. Only a subset of these identified loci overlapped with previously implied, highly recurrent (hot-spot) cytogenetic imbalance regions.
CONCLUSIONS: Thus, for many genomic regions, a simple null-hypothesis of independence between cancer type and relative copy number alteration frequency can be rejected. Since a subset of these regions display relatively low overall CNA frequencies, they may point towards second-tier genomic targets that are adaptively relevant but not necessarily essential for cancer development.