Germline mutations in the gene encoding phosphatase and tensin homolog deleted on chromosome ten (PTEN [MIM 601728]) are associated with a number of clinically distinct heritable cancer syndromes, including both Cowden syndrome (CS) and Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome (BRRS). Seemingly identical pathogenic PTEN mutations have been observed in patients with CS and BRRS, as well as in patients with incomplete features of CS, referred to as CS-like (CSL) patients. These observations indicate that additional, unidentified, genetic and epigenetic factors act as phenotypic modifiers in these disorders. These genetic factors could also contribute to disease in patients with CS, CSL, or BRRS without identifiable PTEN mutations. Two potential modifiers are miR-19a and miR-21, which are previously identified PTEN-targeting miRNAs. We investigated the role of these miRNAs by characterizing their relative expression levels in PTEN-mutation-positive and PTEN-mutation-negative patients with CS, CSL, or BRRS. Interestingly, we observed differential expression of miR-19a and miR-21 in our PTEN-mutation-positive patients. Both were found to be significantly overexpressed within this group (p < 0.01) and were inversely correlated with germline PTEN protein levels. Similarly, the relative expression of miR-19a and miR-21 was differentially expressed in a series of PTEN-mutation-negative patients with CS or CSL with variable clinical phenotypes and decreased full-length PTEN protein expression. Among PTEN-mutation-positive patients with CS, both miRNAs were significantly overexpressed (p = 0.006–0.013). Taken together, our study results suggest that differential expression of PTEN-targeting miR-19a and miR-21 modulates the PTEN protein levels and the CS and CSL phenotypes, irrespective of the patient's mutation status, and support their roles as genetic modifiers in CS and CSL.
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