Background: Cancer subtype switching, which involves unclear cancer cell origin, cell fate decision, and transdifferentiation of cells within a confined tumor microenvironment, remains a major problem in pancreatic cancer (PDA). Results: By analyzing PDA subtypes in The Cancer Genome Atlas, we identified that epigenetic silencing of apoptosis-associated tyrosine kinase (AATK) inversely was correlated with mRNA expression and was enriched in the quasi-mesenchymal cancer subtype. By comparing early mouse pancreatic lesions, the non-invasive regions showed AATK co-expression in cells with acinar-to-ductal metaplasia, nuclear VAV1 localization, and cell cycle suppression; but the invasive lesions conversely revealed diminished AATK expression in those with poorly differentiated histology, cytosolic VAV1 localization, and co-expression of p63 and HNF1α. Transiently activated AATK initiates acinar differentiation into a ductal cell fate to establish apical-basal polarization in acinar-to-ductal metaplasia. Silenced AATK and ectopically expressed p63 and HNF1α allow the proliferation of ductal PanINs in mice. Conclusion: Epigenetic silencing of AATK regulates the cellular transdifferentiation, proliferation, and cell cycle progression in converting PDA-subtypes.
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