MacroH2A variants have been associated with tumor suppression through inhibition of proliferation and metastasis, as well as their role in cellular senescence. However, their role in regulating the dormant state of disseminated cancer cells (DCCs) remains unclear. Here we reveal that solitary dormant DCCs display increased levels of macroH2A variants in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma PDX models and patient samples compared to proliferating primary or metastatic lesions. We further demonstrate that microenvironmental and stress adaptive signals such as TGFβ2 and p38α/β, which induce DCC dormancy, upregulate macroH2A expression. Functionally, we find that overexpression of macroH2A variants is sufficient to induce tumor cells into dormancy and notably, inducible expression of the macroH2A2 variant suppresses the growth of DCCs into overt metastasis. However, this dormant state does not require well-characterized dormancy factors such as DEC2 and NR2F1, suggesting alternate pathways. Our transcriptomic analyses reveal that macroH2A2 overexpression inhibits E2F, RAS and MYC signaling programs, while upregulating inflammatory cytokines commonly secreted by senescent cells. Taken together, our results demonstrate that macroH2A2 enforces a stable dormant phenotype in DCCs by activating a select subset of dormancy and senescence genes that limit metastasis initiation.
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