Investigation of the epigenome of sporadic pituitary tumours is providing a more detailed understanding of aberrations that characterise this tumour type. Early studies, in this and other tumour types adopted candidate-gene approaches to characterise CpG island methylation as a mechanism responsible for or associated with gene silencing. However, more recently, investigators have adopted approaches that do not require a priori knowledge of the gene and transcript, as example differential display techniques, and also genome-wide, array-based approaches, to ‘uncover’ or ‘unmask’ silenced genes. Furthermore, through use of chromatin immunoprecipitation as a selective enrichment technique; we are now beginning to identify modifications that target the underlying histones themselves and that have roles in gene-silencing events. Collectively, these studies provided convincing evidence that change to the tumour epigenome are not simply epiphenomena but have functional consequences in the context of pituitary tumour evolution. Our ability to perform these types of studies has been and is increasingly reliant upon technological advances in the genomics and epigenomics arena. In this context, other more recent advances and developing technologies, and, in particular, next generation or flow cell re-sequencing techniques offer exciting opportunities for our future studies of this tumour type.
In the normal pituitary, glucocorticoids are the principal negative regulator of the pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) gene which gives rise to the biologically active peptides ACTH and β-endorphin. In Cushing's syndrome, ACTH-secreting pituitary tumours show a degree of glucocorticoid resistance, whilst ACTH-secreting extra-pituitary tumours have an even greater resistance to glucocorticoid excess. In an attempt to understand the mechanism of this phenomenon, we have compared the effects of glucocorticoids on POMC mRNA and peptide secretion in human and mouse corticotroph adenoma cells and in small cell lung carcinoma (SCLC) cells. ACTH precursor peptides were inhibited within 24 h by 25–50 nm hydrocortisone in primary cultures from a human corticotroph adenoma. In the mouse corticotroph adenoma cell line (AtT20), inhibition of both ACTH precursors and ACTH was not observed after 24 h but, by 10 days, glucocorticoids suppressed peptide levels with a concentration causing 50% inhibition of 50 nm hydrocortisone and maximal inhibition at 500 nm hydrocortisone. In marked contrast, there was no response to 500 nm hydrocortisone in the five SCLC cell lines (COR L103, COR L42, COR L24, COR L31, DMS 79) all of which secrete ACTH precursors. However, two of the five SCLC cell lines (COR L31 and DMS 79) were responsive to 1000 nm hydrocortisone. POMC mRNA, quantitated by slot-blot analysis, gave similar results for the five SCLC cell lines, implying that the abnormality may occur at the level of gene expression. When one of the three resistant cell lines (COR L103) was incubated with 2000 nm hydrocortisone or 2000 nm dexamethasone a clear suppression of precursor peptides and POMC mRNA was observed. This suggests that the resistance to glucocorticoid inhibition is relative rather than absolute, implying that the normal mechanism is functioning but impaired. Furthermore, there is at least a 20-fold difference in the responsiveness to glucocorticoid inhibition between pituitary and extra-pituitary tumour cells in vitro, which may signify a difference in the underlying mechanism in these two cell types.
Expression of the RNA coding for the ACTH—β-lipotrophin precursor, pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC), has been demonstrated in five human small-cell lung cancer (SCLC) cell lines. Using Northern and slot-blot hybridization analysis of RNA and a bovine POMC cDNA as probe, the processed POMC RNA from SCLC cells was found to be approximately 1350 nucleotides in length, which is larger than that found in the normal human pituitary. Expression of the POMC gene was confirmed by measurement of ACTH precursors secreted by the cells, using a novel two-site immunoradiometric assay based on monoclonal antibodies, which directly quantifies both POMC and pro-ACTH but does not recognize ACTH. Levels of POMC in medium accumulated throughout the growth of the cells, in contrast to POMC RNA which showed a relatively constant level of expression. We conclude that human SCLC cell lines are valuable models for studying the aberrant expression and regulation of the human POMC gene.