INTRODUCTION: In epithelial cancers, truncated O-glycans, such as the Thomson-nouveau antigen (Tn) and its sialylated form (STn), are upregulated on the cell surface and associated with poor prognosis and immunological escape. Recent studies have shown that these carbohydrate epitopes facilitate cancer development and can be targeted therapeutically; however, the mechanism underpinning their expression remains unclear.
METHODS: To identify genes directly influencing the expression of cancer-associated O-glycans, we conducted an unbiased, positive-selection, whole-genome CRISPR knockout-screen using monoclonal antibodies against Tn and STn.
RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: We show that knockout of the Zn2+-transporter SLC39A9 (ZIP9), alongside the well-described targets C1GALT1 (C1GalT1) and its molecular chaperone, C1GALT1C1 (COSMC), results in surface-expression of cancer-associated O-glycans. No other gene perturbations were found to reliably induce O-glycan truncation. We furthermore show that ZIP9 knockout affects N-linked glycosylation, resulting in upregulation of oligo-mannose, hybrid-type, and α2,6-sialylated structures as well as downregulation of tri- and tetra-antennary structures. Finally, we demonstrate that accumulation of Zn2+ in the secretory pathway coincides with cell-surface presentation of truncated O-glycans in cancer tissue, and that over-expression of COSMC mitigates such changes. Collectively, the findings show that dysregulation of ZIP9 and Zn2+ induces cancer-like glycosylation on the cell surface by affecting the glycosylation machinery.