Cancer chromosome breakpoints cluster in gene-rich genomic regions

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Cancer cells are characterized by chromosome abnormalities, of which some, in particular balanced rearrangements, are associated with distinct tumor entities and/or with specific gene rearrangements that represent important steps in the carcinogenic process. However, the vast majority of cytogenetically detectable structural aberrations in cancer cells have not been characterized at the nucleotide level; hence, their importance and functional consequences are unknown. By ascertaining the chromosomal breakpoints in 22 344 different clonal structural chromosome abnormalities identified in the karyotypes of 49 626 cases of neoplastic disorders we here show that the distribution of breakpoints is strongly associated (P < 0.0001) with gene content within the affected chromosomal bands. This association also remains highly significant in separate analyses of recurrent and nonrecurrent chromosome abnormalities as well as of specific subtypes of cancer (P < 0.0001 for all comparisons). In contrast, the impact of band length was negligible. The breakpoint distribution is thus not stochastic—gene-rich regions are preferentially affected. Several genomic features relating to transcription, replication, and chromatin organization have been found to enhance chromosome breakage frequencies; this indicates that gene-rich regions may be more break-prone. The salient finding in the present study is that a substantial fraction of all structural chromosome abnormalities, not only those specifically associated with certain tumor types, may affect genes that are pathogenetically important. If this interpretation is correct, then the prevailing view that the great majority of cancer chromosome aberrations is cytogenetic noise can be seriously questioned.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)149-154
JournalGenes Chromosomes and Cancer
Issue number3
Early online date2018 Nov 27
Publication statusPublished - 2019

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Cancer and Oncology


  • breakpoint distribution
  • cancer chromosome abnormalities
  • cancer chromosome breakpoints
  • cytogenetic noise
  • gene-rich regions


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