Background: Blood leukocytes from patients with solid tumors exhibit complex and distinct cancer-associated patterns of DNA methylation. However, the biologic mechanisms underlying these patterns remain poorly understood. Because epigenetic biomarkers offer significant clinical potential for cancer detection, we sought to address a mechanistic gap in recently published works, hypothesizing that blood-based epigenetic variation may be due to shifts in leukocyte populations. Methods: We identified differentially methylated regions (DMR) among leukocyte subtypes using epigenome- wide DNA methylation profiling of purified peripheral blood leukocyte subtypes from healthy donors. These leukocyte-tagging DMRs were then evaluated using epigenome-wide blood methylation data from three independent case-control studies of different cancers. Results: A substantial proportion of the top 50 leukocyte DMRs were significantly differentially methylated among head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) cases and ovarian cancer cases compared with cancer-free controls (48 and 47 of 50, respectively). Methylation classes derived from leukocyte DMRs were significantly associated cancer case status (P < 0.001, P < 0.03, and P < 0.001) for all three cancer types: HNSCC, bladder cancer, and ovarian cancer, respectively and predicted cancer status with a high degree of accuracy (area under the curve [AUC] = 0.82, 0.83, and 0.67). Conclusions: These results suggest that shifts in leukocyte subpopulations may account for a considerable proportion of variability in peripheral blood DNA methylation patterns of solid tumors. Impact: This illustrates the potential use of DNA methylation profiles for identifying shifts in leukocyte populations representative of disease, and that such profiles may represent powerful new diagnostic tools, applicable to a range of solid tumors.
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