Mutational Signature Analysis Reveals Widespread Contribution of Pyrrolizidine Alkaloid Exposure to Human Liver Cancer

Yisheng He, Mai Shi, Xu Wu, Jiang Ma, Kevin Tak Pan Ng, Qingsu Xia, Lin Zhu, Peter Pi Cheng Fu, Kwan Man, Stephen Kwok Wing Tsui, Ge Lin*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


Background and Aims: Mutational signature analyses are an effective tool in identifying cancer etiology. Humans are frequently exposed to pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), the most common carcinogenic phytotoxins widely distributed in herbal remedies and foods. However, due to the lack of human epidemiological data, PAs are classified as group II hepatocarcinogens by the World Health Organization. This study identified a PA mutational signature as the biomarker to investigate the association of PA exposure with human liver cancer.

Approach and Results: Pyrrole-protein adducts (PPAs), the PA exposure biomarker, were measured and found in 32% of surgically resected specimens from 34 patients with liver cancer in Hong Kong. Next, we delineated the mode of mutagenic and tumorigenic actions of retrorsine, a representative PA, in mice and human hepatocytes (HepaRG). Retrorsine induced DNA adduction, DNA damage, and activation of tumorigenic hepatic progenitor cells, which initiated hepatocarcinogenesis. PA mutational signature, as the unique molecular fingerprint of PA-induced mutation, was derived from exome mutations in retrorsine-exposed mice and HepaRG cells. Notably, PA mutational signature was validated in genomes of patients with PPA-positive liver cancer but not patients with PPA-negative liver cancer, confirming the specificity of this biomarker in revealing PA-associated liver cancers. Furthermore, we examined the established PA mutational signature in 1,513 liver cancer genomes and found that PA-associated liver cancers were potentially prevalent in Asia (Mainland China [48%], Hong Kong [44%], Japan [22%], South Korea [6%], Southeast Asia [25%]) but minor in Western countries (North America [3%] and Europe [5%]).

Conclusions: This study provides a clinical indication of PA-associated liver cancer. We discovered an unexpectedly extensive implication of PA exposure in patients with liver cancer, laying the scientific basis for precautionary approaches and prevention of PA-associated human liver cancers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)264-280
Number of pages17
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Hepatology


Dive into the research topics of 'Mutational Signature Analysis Reveals Widespread Contribution of Pyrrolizidine Alkaloid Exposure to Human Liver Cancer'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this