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1.  Sex-specific differences in the relationship between genetic susceptibility, T cell DNA demethylation and lupus flare severity 
Journal of Autoimmunity  2012;38(2-3):J216-J222.
Lupus is less common in men than women, and the reason is incompletely understood. Current evidence indicates that lupus flares when genetically predisposed individuals encounter environmental agents that trigger the disease, and that the environmental contribution is mediated at least in part by T cell DNA demethylation. We hypothesized that lupus disease activity is directly related to total genetic risk and inversely related to T cell DNA methylation levels in each patient. Since women are predisposed to lupus in part because of their second X chromosome, we also hypothesized that men would require a greater genetic risk, a greater degree of autosomal T cell DNA demethylation, or both, to achieve a lupus flare equal in severity to women. Genetic risk was determined by genotyping men and women with lupus across 32 confirmed lupus susceptibility loci. The methylation status of two T cell autosomal genes known to demethylate in proportion to disease activity, KIR2DL4 (KIR) and PRF1, was measured by bisulfite sequencing. Lupus disease activity was determined by the SLEDAI. Interactions between genetic score, T cell DNA demethylation, and the SLEDAI score were compared between the men and women by regression analysis. Combining the degree of DNA demethylation with the genetic risk score for each patient demonstrated that the (genetic risk)/(DNA methylation) ratio increased directly with disease activity in both men and women with lupus. Importantly, men required a greater (genetic risk)/(DNA methylation) ratio to achieve a SLEDAI score equivalent to women (p=0.010 for KIR and p=0.0054 for PRF1). This difference was not explained by a difference in the genetic risk or T cell DNA demethylation alone, suggesting a genetic-epigenetic interaction. These results suggest that genetic risk and T cell DNA demethylation interact in lupus patients to influence the severity of lupus flares, and that men require a higher genetic risk and/or greater degree of T cell DNA demethylation to achieve a lupus flare equal in severity to women.
doi:10.1016/j.jaut.2011.11.008
PMCID: PMC3313010  PMID: 22305513
Genetic risk; epigenetics; DNA methylation; lupus; genetic-epigenetic interaction; sex-disparity
2.  microRNAs in lupus 
Autoimmunity  2014;47(4):272-285.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a prototypic autoimmune disease characterized by the production of an array of pathogenic autoantibodies, including high-affinity anti-dsDNA IgG antibodies, which plays an important role in disease development and progression. Lupus preferentially affects women during their reproductive years. The pathogenesis of lupus is contributed by both genetic factors and epigenetic modifications that arise from exposure to the environment. Epigenetic marks, including DNA methylation, histone post-translational modifications and microRNAs (miRNAs), interact with genetic programs to regulate immune responses. Epigenetic modifications influence gene expression and modulate B cell functions, such as class switch DNA recombination (CSR), somatic hypermutation (SHM) and plasma cell differentiation, thereby informing the antibody response. Epigenetic dysregulation can result in aberrant antibody responses to exogenous antigens or self-antigens, such as chromatin, histones and dsDNA in lupus. miRNAs play key roles in the post-transcriptional regulation of most gene-regulatory pathways and regulate both the innate and the adaptive immune responses. In mice, dysregulation of miRNAs leads to aberrant immune responses and development of systemic autoimmunity. Altered miRNA expression has been reported in human autoimmune diseases, including lupus. The dysregulation of miRNAs in lupus could be the result of multiple environmental factors, such as sex hormones and viral or bacterial infection. Modulation of miRNA is a potential therapeutic strategy for lupus.
doi:10.3109/08916934.2014.915955
PMCID: PMC4239026  PMID: 24826805
activation-induced cytidine deaminase (AID); antibody; autoantibody; autoimmunity; B cell; class switch DNA recombination (CSR); epigenetics; microRNA; somatic hypermutation (SHM); systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
3.  Functional characterization of the MECP2/IRAK1 lupus risk haplotype in human T cells and a human MECP2 transgenic mouse 
Journal of autoimmunity  2013;41:168-174.
Genetic polymorphism in MECP2/IRAK1 on chromosome Xq28 is a confirmed and replicated susceptibility locus for lupus. High linkage disequilibrium in this locus suggests that both MECP2 and IRAK1 are candidate genes for the disease. DNA methylation changes in lupus T cells play a central role in the pathogenesis of lupus, and MeCp-2 (encoded by MECP2) is a master regulator of gene expression and is also known to recruit DNA methyltransferase 1 (DNMT1) during DNA synthesis. Using human T cells from normal individuals with either the lupus risk or the lupus protective haplotype in MECP2/IRAK1, we demonstrate that polymorphism in this locus increases MECP2 isoform 2 mRNA expression in stimulated but not unstimulated T cells. By assessing DNA methylation levels across over 485,000 methylation sites across the entire genome, we further demonstrate that the lupus risk variant in this locus is associated with significant DNA methylation changes, including in the HLA-DR and HLA-DQ loci, as well as interferon-related genes such as IFI6, IRF6, and BST2. Further, using a human MECP2 transgenic mouse, we show that overexpression of MECP2 alters gene expression in stimulated T cells. This includes overexpression of Eif2c2 that regulates the expression of multiple microRNAs (such as miR-21), and the histone demethylase Jhdm1d. In addition, we show that MECP2 transgenic mice develop antinuclear antibodies. Our data suggest that the lupus associated variant in the MECP2/IRAK1 locus has the potential to affect all 3 epigenetic mechanisms: DNA methylation, microRNA expression, and histone modification. Importantly, these data support the notion that variants within the MECP2 gene can alter DNA methylation in other genetic loci including the HLA and interferon-regulated genes, thereby providing evidence for genetic-epigenetic interaction in lupus.
doi:10.1016/j.jaut.2012.12.012
PMCID: PMC3622940  PMID: 23428850
MECP2; IRAK1; lupus; epigenetics; polymorphism; DNA methylation; T cells; transgenic mouse
4.  Dissecting complex epigenetic alterations in human lupus 
Systemic lupus erythematosus is a chronic relapsing autoimmune disease that primarily afflicts women, and both a genetic predisposition and appropriate environmental exposures are required for lupus to develop and flare. The genetic requirement is evidenced by an increased concordance in identical twins and by the validation of at least 35 single-nucleotide polymorphisms predisposing patients to lupus. Genes alone, though, are not enough. The concordance of lupus in identical twins is often incomplete, and when concordant, the age of onset is usually different. Lupus is also not present at birth, but once the disease develops, it typically follows a chronic relapsing course. Thus, genes alone are insufficient to cause human lupus, and additional factors encountered in the environment and over time are required to initiate the disease and subsequent flares. The nature of the environmental contribution, though, and the mechanisms by which environmental agents modify the immune response to cause lupus onset and flares in genetically predisposed people have been controversial. Reports that the lupus-inducing drugs procainamide and hydralazine are epigenetic modifiers, that epigenetically modified T cells are sufficient to cause lupus-like autoimmunity in animal models, and that patients with active lupus have epigenetic changes similar to those caused by procainamide and hydralazine have prompted a growing interest in how epigenetic alterations contribute to this disease. Understanding how epigenetic mechanisms modify T cells to contribute to lupus requires an understanding of how epigenetic mechanisms regulate gene expression. The roles of DNA methylation, histone modifications, and microRNAs in lupus pathogenesis will be reviewed here.
doi:10.1186/ar4125
PMCID: PMC3746410  PMID: 23374884
5.  Aberrant T cell ERK pathway signaling and chromatin structure in lupus 
Autoimmunity reviews  2008;8(3):196-198.
Human systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease characterized by autoantibodies to nuclear components with subsequent immune complex formation and deposition in multiple organs. A combination of genetic and environmental factors is required for disease development, but how the environment interacts with the immune system in genetically predisposed hosts to cause lupus is unclear. Recent evidence suggests that environmental agents may alter T cell chromatin structure and gene expression through effects on DNA methylation, a repressive epigenetic mechanism promoting chromatin inactivation, to cause lupus in people with the appropriate genetic background. DNA methylation is regulated by ERK pathway signaling, and abnormalities in ERK pathway signaling may contribute to immune dysfunction in lupus through epigenetic effects on gene expression. This article reviews current evidence for epigenetic abnormalities, and in particular DNA demethylation, in the pathogenesis of idiopathic and some forms of drug induced lupus, and how impaired ERK pathway signaling may contribute to the development of human lupus through effects on T cell DNA methylation.
doi:10.1016/j.autrev.2008.07.043
PMCID: PMC2642928  PMID: 18723128
Lupus T cells; Epigenetics; DNA methylation; ERK pathway signaling; PKCδ
6.  Ethnic Differences in DNA Methyltransferases Expression in Patients with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus 
Journal of Clinical Immunology  2012;33(2):342-348.
Purpose
Systemic lupus erythematous (SLE) is a systemic autoimmune inflammatory disease with both genetic and epigenetic etiologies. Evidence suggests that deregulation of specific genes through epigenetic mechanisms may be a contributing factor to SLE pathology. There is increasing evidence that DNA methyltransferase activity may be involved. This study demonstrated modulation in expression of DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs) according to ethnicity in patients diagnosed with SLE. Furthermore, differential expression in one of the DNMTs was found in a subset of lupus patients on dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) therapy.
Methods
Real-time PCR analyses of DNMT1, DNMT3A and DNMT3B in peripheral blood mononuclear cells from a cohort of African American and European American lupus and non-lupus women were conducted. Also, global DNA methylation was assessed using the MethylFlashTM methylated quantification colorimetric assay.
Results
Significant increase in DNMT3A (p < 0.001) was shown in lupus patients when compared to age-matched healthy controls. This increase was associated with a higher SLEDI index. More striking was that expression levels for African American (AA) women were higher than European American women in the lupus populations. A subset of AA women on DHEA therapy showed a significant decrease (p < 0.05) in DNMT3A expression in comparison to lupus patients not on the therapy. DHEA is an androgenic steroid found in low levels in the serum of lupus patients. Supplementation of this hormone has been shown to be beneficial to some lupus patients. DHEA was not shown to effect DNMT1 or DNMT3B expression. Increased expression was also noted in DNMT3B (p < 0.05) in lupus patients compared to age-matched healthy controls. However, no significant difference was noted in DNMT1 (p = 0.2148) expression between lupus patients and healthy controls. Although increases were detected in de novo methyltransferases, a global decrease (p < 0.001) in 5-methycytosine was observed in lupus patients when compared to age-matched healthy controls.
Conclusion
These findings suggest that epigenetic changes may play a critical role in the manifestations of the disease observed among ethnic groups, particularly African American women who often have a higher incidence of lupus. DHEA therapy effects on DNMT3A expression in AA women warrant further investigation in a larger population.
doi:10.1007/s10875-012-9803-z
PMCID: PMC3573322  PMID: 23054340
Lupus; DNA methyltransferases; DHEA; DNMT3A; DNMT3B; DNMT1
7.  Diet Influences Expression of Autoimmune Associated Genes and Disease Severity By Epigenetic Mechanisms in a Transgenic Lupus Model 
Arthritis and rheumatism  2013;65(7):1872-1881.
Objective
Lupus flares when genetically predisposed people encounter appropriate environmental agents. Current evidence indicates that the environment contributes by inhibiting T cell DNA methylation, causing overexpression of normally silenced genes. DNA methylation depends on both dietary transmethylation micronutrients and Erk-regulated DNA methyltransferase 1 (Dnmt1) levels. We used transgenic mice to study interactions between diet, Dnmt1 levels and genetic predisposition on the development and severity of lupus.
Methods
A doxycycline-inducible Erk defect was bred into lupus-resistant (C57BL/6) or lupus-susceptible (C57BL/6xSJL) mouse strains. Doxycycline treated mice were fed a standard commercial diet for eighteen weeks then switched to diets supplemented(MS) or restricted(MR) intransmethylation micronutrients. Disease severity was assessed by anti-dsDNA antibodies, proteinuria, hematuria and histopathology of kidney tissues. Pyrosequencing was used to determine micronutrient effects on DNA methylation.
Results
Doxycycline induced modest levels of anti-dsDNA antibodies in C57BL/6 mice and higher levels in C57BL/6xSJL mice. Doxycycline-treated C57BL/6xSJL mice developed hematuria and glomerulonephritis on the MR and standard but not the MS diet. In contrast C57BL/6 mice developed kidney disease only on the MR diet. Decreasing Erk signaling and methyl donors also caused demethylation and overexpression of the CD40lg gene in female mice, consistent with demethylation of the second X chromosome. Both the dietary methyl donor content and duration of treatment influenced methylation and expression of the CD40lg gene.
Conclusions
Dietary micronutrients that affect DNA methylation can exacerbate or ameliorate SLE disease in this transgenic murine lupus model, and contribute to lupus susceptibility and severity through genetic/epigenetic interactions.
doi:10.1002/art.37967
PMCID: PMC3735138  PMID: 23576011
Extracellular Receptor Kinase (Erk; Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE; CD70; micronutrients; CD40L; KirL1
8.  Variants within MECP2, a key transcriptional regulator, are associated with increased susceptibility to lupus and differential gene expression in lupus patients 
Arthritis and rheumatism  2009;60(4):1076-1084.
Objective
Both genetic and epigenetic factors play an important role in the pathogenesis of lupus. Herein, we study methyl-CpG-binding protein 2 (MECP2) polymorphism in a large cohort of lupus patients and controls, and determine functional consequences of the lupus-associated MECP2 haplotype.
Methods
We genotyped 18 SNPs within MECP2, located on chromosome Xq28, in a large cohort of European-derived lupus patients and controls. We studied the functional effects of the lupus-associated MECP2 haplotype by determining gene expression profiles in B cell lines from female lupus patients with and without the lupus-associated MECP2 risk haplotype.
Results
We confirm, replicate, and extend the genetic association between lupus and genetic markers within MECP2 in a large independent cohort of European-derived lupus patients and controls (OR= 1.35, p= 6.65×10−11). MECP2 is a dichotomous transcriptional regulator that either activates or represses gene expression. We identified 128 genes that are differentially expressed in lupus patients with the disease-associated MECP2 haplotype; most (~81%) are upregulated. Genes that were upregulated have significantly more CpG islands in their promoter regions compared to downregulated genes. Gene ontology analysis using the differentially expressed genes revealed significant association with epigenetic regulatory mechanisms suggesting that these genes are targets for MECP2 regulation in B cells. Further, at least 13 of the 104 upregulated genes are interferon-regulated genes. The disease-risk MECP2 haplotype is associated with increased expression of the MECP2 transcriptional co-activator CREB1, and decreased expression of the co-repressor HDAC1.
Conclusion
Polymorphism in the MECP2 locus is associated with lupus and, at least in part, contributes to the interferon signature observed in lupus patients.
doi:10.1002/art.24360
PMCID: PMC2734382  PMID: 19333917
9.  Genome-Wide DNA Methylation Analysis of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus Reveals Persistent Hypomethylation of Interferon Genes and Compositional Changes to CD4+ T-cell Populations 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(8):e1003678.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease with known genetic, epigenetic, and environmental risk factors. To assess the role of DNA methylation in SLE, we collected CD4+ T-cells, CD19+ B-cells, and CD14+ monocytes from 49 SLE patients and 58 controls, and performed genome-wide DNA methylation analysis with Illumina Methylation450 microarrays. We identified 166 CpGs in B-cells, 97 CpGs in monocytes, and 1,033 CpGs in T-cells with highly significant changes in DNA methylation levels (p<1×10−8) among SLE patients. Common to all three cell-types were widespread and severe hypomethylation events near genes involved in interferon signaling (type I). These interferon-related changes were apparent in patients collected during active and quiescent stages of the disease, suggesting that epigenetically-mediated hypersensitivity to interferon persists beyond acute stages of the disease and is independent of circulating interferon levels. This interferon hypersensitivity was apparent in memory, naïve and regulatory T-cells, suggesting that this epigenetic state in lupus patients is established in progenitor cell populations. We also identified a widespread, but lower amplitude shift in methylation in CD4+ T-cells (>16,000 CpGs at FDR<1%) near genes involved in cell division and MAPK signaling. These cell type-specific effects are consistent with disease-specific changes in the composition of the CD4+ population and suggest that shifts in the proportion of CD4+ subtypes can be monitored at CpGs with subtype-specific DNA methylation patterns.
Author Summary
We have analyzed DNA methylation, an epigenetic modification that influences gene expression, in lupus patients and control subjects. Our analysis was run in three different immune cell types, T-cells, B-cells, and monocytes, to discern common epigenetic effects in lupus from cell type-specific effects. We have identified a lupus-related reduction in methylation around genes that respond to interferon, a cytokine that induces inflammation in response to pathogens. This hypomethylation suggests that lupus patients are hypersensitive to interferon, as DNA methylation is typically an inhibitor of gene expression. We also find that this hypersensitivity is preserved in lupus patients beyond active stages of the disease, and this may help explain the chronic, recurrent nature of the disease. In addition, we have identified DNA methylation changes in T-cells that suggest an alteration in the proportions of these cells in lupus patients, which may help explain the disease process.
doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1003678
PMCID: PMC3738443  PMID: 23950730
10.  Genome-wide DNA methylation study suggests epigenetic accessibility and transcriptional poising of interferon-regulated genes in naïve CD4+ T cells from lupus patients 
Journal of autoimmunity  2013;43:78-84.
Systemic lupus erythematosus is an autoimmune disease characterized by multi-system involvement and autoantibody production. Abnormal T cell DNA methylation and type-I interferon play an important role in the pathogenesis of lupus. We performed a genome-wide DNA methylation study in two independent sets of lupus patients and matched healthy controls to characterize the DNA methylome in naïve CD4+ T cells in lupus. DNA methylation was quantified for over 485,000 methylation sites across the genome, and differentially methylated sites between lupus patients and controls were identified and then independently replicated. Gene expression analysis was also performed from the same cells to investigate the relationship between the DNA methylation changes observed and mRNA expression levels. We identified and replicated 86 differentially methylated CG sites between patients and controls in 47 genes, with the majority being hypomethylated. We observed significant hypomethylation in interferon-regulated genes in naïve T cells from lupus patients, including IFIT1, IFIT3, MX1, STAT1, IFI44L, USP18, TRIM22 and BST2, suggesting epigenetic transcriptional accessibility in these genetic loci. Indeed, the majority of the hypomethylated genes (21 out of 35 hypomethylated genes) are regulated by type I interferon. The hypomethylation in interferon-regulated genes was not related to lupus disease activity. Gene expression analysis showed overexpression of these genes in total but not naïve CD4+ T cells from lupus patients. Our data suggest epigenetic “poising” of interferon-regulated genes in lupus naïve CD4+ T cells, argue for a novel pathogenic implication for abnormal T cell DNA methylation in lupus, and suggest a mechanism for type-I interferon hyper-responsiveness in lupus T cells.
doi:10.1016/j.jaut.2013.04.003
PMCID: PMC3790645  PMID: 23623029
Lupus; naïve CD4+ T cells; methylome; DNA methylation
11.  Epigenetics in human autoimmunity 
Autoimmunity  2008;41(4):278.
Epigenetic mechanisms are essential for normal development and function of the immune system. Similarly, a failure to maintain epigenetic homeostasis in the immune response due to factors including environmental influences, leads to aberrant gene expression, contributing to immune dysfunction and in some cases the development of autoimmunity in genetically predisposed individuals. This is exemplified by systemic lupus erythematosus, where environmentally induced epigenetic changes contribute to disease pathogenesis in those genetically predisposed. Similar interactions between genetically determined susceptibility and environmental factors are implicated in other systemic autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma, as well as in organ specific autoimmunity. The skin is exposed to a wide variety of environmental agents, including UV radiation, and is prone to the development of autoimmune conditions such as atopic dermatitis, psoriasis and some forms of vitiligo, depending on environmental and genetic influences. Herein we review how disruption of epigenetic mechanisms can alter immune function using lupus as an example, and summarize how similar mechanisms may contribute to other human autoimmune rheumatic and skin diseases.
doi:10.1080/08916930802024616
PMCID: PMC2819669  PMID: 18432408
Epigenetics; DNA methylation; lupus; psoriasis; atopic dermatitis; vitiligo
12.  The genetics and epigenetics of autoimmune diseases 
Journal of autoimmunity  2009;33(1):3.
Self tolerance loss is fundamental to autoimmunity. While understanding of immune regulation is expanding rapidly, the mechanisms causing loss of tolerance in most autoimmune diseases remain elusive. Autoimmunity is believed to develop when genetically predisposed individuals encounter environmental agents that trigger the disease. Recent advances in the genetic and environmental contributions to autoimmunity suggest that interactions between genetic elements and epigenetic changes caused by environmental agents may be responsible for inducing autoimmune disease. Genetic loci predisposing to autoimmunity are being identified through multi-center consortiums, and the number of validated genes is growing rapidly. Recent reports also indicate that the environment can contribute to autoimmunity by modifying gene expression through epigenetic mechanisms. This article will review current understanding of the genetics and epigenetics of lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes, using systemic lupus erythematosus as the primary example. Other autoimmune diseases may have a similar foundation.
doi:10.1016/j.jaut.2009.03.007
PMCID: PMC2819418  PMID: 19349147
Epigenetics; Genetics; Lupus; Multiple Sclerosis; Rheumatoid Arthritis
13.  Environmental Factors, Toxicants and Systemic Lupus Erythematosus 
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an immune-complex-mediated multi-systemic autoimmune condition of multifactorial etiology, which mainly affects young women. It is currently believed that the onset of SLE and lupus flares are triggered by various environmental factors in genetically susceptible individuals. Various environmental agents and toxicants, such as cigarette smoke, alcohol, occupationally- and non-occupationally-related chemicals, ultraviolet light, infections, sex hormones and certain medications and vaccines, have been implicated to induce SLE onset or flares in a number case series, case-control and population-based cohort studies and very few randomized controlled trials. Here, we will describe some of these recognized environmental lupus triggering and perpetuating factors and explain how these factors potentially bias the immune system towards autoimmunity through their interactions with genetic and epigenetic alterations. Further in-depth exploration of how potentially important environmental factors mechanistically interact with the immune system and the genome, which trigger the onset of SLE and lupus flares, will certainly be one of the plausible steps to prevent the onset and to decelerate the progress of the disease.
doi:10.3390/ijms150916043
PMCID: PMC4200809  PMID: 25216337
environmental factors; toxicants; genetics; epigenetics; T-cells; systemic lupus erythematosus
14.  Genome-wide DNA methylation patterns in CD4+ T cells from patients with systemic lupus erythematosus 
Epigenetics  2011;6(5):593-601.
Systemic lupus erythematosus is a chronic-relapsing autoimmune disease of incompletely understood etiology. Recent evidence strongly supports an epigenetic contribution to the pathogenesis of lupus. To understand the extent and nature of dysregulated DNA methylation in lupus T cells, we performed a genome-wide DNA methylation study in CD4+ T cells in lupus patients compared to normal healthy controls. Cytosine methylation was quantified in 27,578 CG sites located within the promoter regions of 14,495 genes. We identified 236 hypomethylated and 105 hypermethylated CG sites in lupus CD4+ T cells compared to normal controls, consistent with widespread DNA methylation changes in lupus T cells. Of interest, hypomethylated genes in lupus T cells include CD9, which is known to provide potent T-cell co-stimulation signals. Other genes with known involvement in autoimmunity such as MMP9 and PDGFRA were also hypomethylated. The BST2 gene, an interferon-inducible membrane-bound protein that helps restrict the release of retroviral particles was also hypomethylated in lupus patients. Genes involved in folate biosynthesis, which plays a role in DNA methylation, were overrepresented among hypermethylated genes. In addition, the transcription factor RUNX3 was hypermethylated in patients, suggesting an impact on T-cell maturation. Protein-protein interaction maps identified a transcription factor, HNF4a, as a regulatory hub affecting a number of differentially methylated genes. Apoptosis was also an overrepresented ontology in these interaction maps. Further, our data suggest that the methylation status of RAB22A, STX1B2, LGALS3BP, DNASE1L1 and PREX1 correlates with disease activity in lupus patients.
doi:10.4161/epi.6.5.15374
PMCID: PMC3121972  PMID: 21436623
lupus; T cells; CD4+ T cells; methylation; methylome
15.  Evidence for gene-gene epistatic interactions among susceptibility loci for systemic lupus erythematosus 
Arthritis and Rheumatism  2012;64(2):485-492.
Objective
Several confirmed genetic susceptibility loci for lupus have been described. To date, no clear evidence for genetic epistasis is established in lupus. We test for gene-gene interactions in a number of known lupus susceptibility loci.
Methods
Eighteen SNPs tagging independent and confirmed lupus susceptibility loci were genotyped in a set of 4,248 lupus patients and 3,818 normal healthy controls of European descent. Epistasis was tested using a 2-step approach utilizing both parametric and non-parametric methods. The false discovery rate (FDR) method was used to correct for multiple testing.
Results
We detected and confirmed gene-gene interactions between the HLA region and CTLA4, IRF5, and ITGAM, and between PDCD1 and IL21 in lupus patients. The most significant interaction detected by parametric analysis was between rs3131379 in the HLA region and rs231775 in CTLA4 (Interaction odds ratio=1.19, z-score= 3.95, P= 7.8×10−5 (FDR≤0.05), PMDR= 5.9×10−45). Importantly, our data suggest that in lupus patients the presence of the HLA lupus-risk alleles in rs1270942 and rs3131379 increases the odds of also carrying the lupus-risk allele in IRF5 (rs2070197) by 17% and 16%, respectively (P= 0.0028 and 0.0047).
Conclusion
We provide evidence for gene-gene epistasis in systemic lupus erythematosus. These findings support a role for genetic interaction contributing to the complexity of lupus heritability.
doi:10.1002/art.33354
PMCID: PMC3268866  PMID: 21952918
16.  Risk Alleles for Systemic Lupus Erythematosus in a Large Case-Control Collection and Associations with Clinical Subphenotypes 
PLoS Genetics  2011;7(2):e1001311.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a genetically complex disease with heterogeneous clinical manifestations. Recent studies have greatly expanded the number of established SLE risk alleles, but the distribution of multiple risk alleles in cases versus controls and their relationship to subphenotypes have not been studied. We studied 22 SLE susceptibility polymorphisms with previous genome-wide evidence of association (p<5×10−8) in 1919 SLE cases from 9 independent Caucasian SLE case series and 4813 independent controls. The mean number of risk alleles in cases was 15.1 (SD 3.1) while the mean in controls was 13.1 (SD 2.8), with trend p = 4×10−128. We defined a genetic risk score (GRS) for SLE as the number of risk alleles with each weighted by the SLE risk odds ratio (OR). The OR for high-low GRS tertiles, adjusted for intra-European ancestry, sex, and parent study, was 4.4 (95% CI 3.8–5.1). We studied associations of individual SNPs and the GRS with clinical manifestations for the cases: age at diagnosis, the 11 American College of Rheumatology classification criteria, and double-stranded DNA antibody (anti-dsDNA) production. Six subphenotypes were significantly associated with the GRS, most notably anti-dsDNA (ORhigh-low = 2.36, p = 9e−9), the immunologic criterion (ORhigh-low = 2.23, p = 3e−7), and age at diagnosis (ORhigh-low = 1.45, p = 0.0060). Finally, we developed a subphenotype-specific GRS (sub-GRS) for each phenotype with more power to detect cumulative genetic associations. The sub-GRS was more strongly associated than any single SNP effect for 5 subphenotypes (the above plus hematologic disorder and oral ulcers), while single loci are more significantly associated with renal disease (HLA-DRB1, OR = 1.37, 95% CI 1.14–1.64) and arthritis (ITGAM, OR = 0.72, 95% CI 0.59–0.88). We did not observe significant associations for other subphenotypes, for individual loci or the sub-GRS. Thus our analysis categorizes SLE subphenotypes into three groups: those having cumulative, single, and no known genetic association with respect to the currently established SLE risk loci.
Author Summary
Systemic lupus erythematosus is a chronic disabling autoimmune disease, most commonly striking women in their thirties or forties. It can cause a wide variety of clinical manifestations, including kidney disease, arthritis, and skin disorders. Prognosis varies greatly depending on these clinical features, with kidney disease and related characteristics leading to greater morbidity and mortality. It is also complex genetically; while lupus runs in families, genes increase one's risk for lupus but do not fully determine the outcome. The interactions of multiple genes and/or interactions between genes and environmental factors may cause lupus, but the causes and disease pathways of this very heterogeneous disease are not well understood. By examining relationships between the presence of multiple lupus risk genes, lupus susceptibility, and clinical manifestations, we hope to better understand how lupus is triggered and by what biological pathways it progresses. We show in this work that certain clinical manifestations of lupus are highly associated with cumulative genetic variations, i.e. multiple risk alleles, while others are associated with a single variation or none at all.
doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1001311
PMCID: PMC3040652  PMID: 21379322
17.  Genetic Factors Predisposing to Systemic Lupus Erythematosus and Lupus Nephritis 
Seminars in nephrology  2010;30(2):164-176.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is a chronic inflammatory disease characterized by a loss of tolerance to self-antigens and the production of high titers of serum autoantibodies. Lupus nephritis can affect up to 74% of SLE patients, particularly those of Hispanic and African ancestries, and remains a major cause of morbidity and mortality. A genetic etiology in SLE is now well substantiated. Thanks to extensive collaborations, extraordinary progress has been made in the last few years and the number of confirmed genes predisposing to SLE has catapulted to approximately 30. Studies of other forms of genetic variation, such as CNVs and epigenetic alterations, are emerging and promise to revolutionize our knowledge about disease mechanisms. However, to date little progress has been made on the identification of genetic factors specific to lupus nephritis. On the near horizon, two large-scale efforts, a collaborative meta-analysis of lupus nephritis based on all genome-wide association data in Caucasians and parallel scans in four other ethnicities, are poised to make fundamental discoveries in the genetics of lupus nephritis. Collectively, these findings will demonstrate that a broad array of pathways underlines the genetic heterogeneity of SLE and lupus nephritis, and provide potential avenues for the development of novel therapies.
doi:10.1016/j.semnephrol.2010.01.007
PMCID: PMC2847514  PMID: 20347645
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE); genetics; lupus nephritis
18.  The United States to Africa lupus prevalence gradient revisited 
Lupus  2011;20(10):1095-1103.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a systemic autoimmune disease that has a significantly higher prevalence, morbidity and mortality in African Americans compared with Americans of European descent. The pathogenesis of lupus is unclear but appears to be a result of environmental factors interacting with a genetically susceptible host. Despite the high disease load of SLE in African Americans, there is the perception that lupus is relatively rare in Africa. This prevalence gradient suggests that comparative studies of related cohorts from the two continents may provide insight into the genetic/environmental interactions that result in the development of lupus. To define if a lupus gradient exists, we began a study of autoimmunity prevalence utilizing two unique cohorts. The first is the Gullah population of the Sea Islands of South Carolina, who are unique in their low genetic admixture and their known ancestral heritage. The second is the population of young women served by the West Africa Fistula Foundation in Bo, Sierra Leone. Anthropologic studies indicate a direct ancestral link between the Gullah population and Sierra Leoneans. Since it is impossible to perform an epidemiologic study of lupus in Sierra Leone at this time, we assessed the prevalence of lupus serum autoantibodies, serologic evidence of specific infections and levels of serum 25-OH vitamin D in young women in the two cohorts who have no known relatives with lupus. Our results indicate similar prevalence of serum antinuclear antibodies in the two cohorts, though there was a significantly increased prevalence of antiphospholipid and anti-Sm antibodies in the Sierra Leone cohort. Seropositivity to common viral infections was significantly higher in women from Sierra Leone, while serum 25-OH vitamin D levels were markedly lower in the Gullah population. These data suggest that the prevalence of autoimmunity is similar in the two populations, but that there are significant environmental differences that may impact progression to autoimmune disease. Further studies comparing these two cohorts is likely to provide important insight into the impact of environmental factors on development of lupus.
doi:10.1177/0961203311404915
PMCID: PMC3535487  PMID: 21917913
African American; lupus; prevalence gradient; vitamin D
19.  Specificity of the STAT4 Genetic Association for Severe Disease Manifestations of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus 
PLoS Genetics  2008;4(5):e1000084.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a genetically complex disease with heterogeneous clinical manifestations. A polymorphism in the STAT4 gene has recently been established as a risk factor for SLE, but the relationship with specific SLE subphenotypes has not been studied. We studied 137 SNPs in the STAT4 region genotyped in 4 independent SLE case series (total n = 1398) and 2560 healthy controls, along with clinical data for the cases. Using conditional testing, we confirmed the most significant STAT4 haplotype for SLE risk. We then studied a SNP marking this haplotype for association with specific SLE subphenotypes, including autoantibody production, nephritis, arthritis, mucocutaneous manifestations, and age at diagnosis. To prevent possible type-I errors from population stratification, we reanalyzed the data using a subset of subjects determined to be most homogeneous based on principal components analysis of genome-wide data. We confirmed that four SNPs in very high LD (r2 = 0.94 to 0.99) were most strongly associated with SLE, and there was no compelling evidence for additional SLE risk loci in the STAT4 region. SNP rs7574865 marking this haplotype had a minor allele frequency (MAF) = 31.1% in SLE cases compared with 22.5% in controls (OR = 1.56, p = 10−16). This SNP was more strongly associated with SLE characterized by double-stranded DNA autoantibodies (MAF = 35.1%, OR = 1.86, p<10−19), nephritis (MAF = 34.3%, OR = 1.80, p<10−11), and age at diagnosis<30 years (MAF = 33.8%, OR = 1.77, p<10−13). An association with severe nephritis was even more striking (MAF = 39.2%, OR = 2.35, p<10−4 in the homogeneous subset of subjects). In contrast, STAT4 was less strongly associated with oral ulcers, a manifestation associated with milder disease. We conclude that this common polymorphism of STAT4 contributes to the phenotypic heterogeneity of SLE, predisposing specifically to more severe disease.
Author Summary
Systemic lupus erythematosus is a chronic disabling autoimmune disease, most commonly striking women in their thirties or forties. It can cause a wide variety of clinical manifestations, including kidney disease, arthritis, and skin disorders. Prognosis varies greatly depending on these clinical features, with kidney disease and related characteristics leading to greater morbidity and mortality. It is also complex genetically; while lupus runs in families, genes increase one’s risk for lupus but do not fully determine the outcome. It is thought that the interactions of multiple genes and/or interactions between genes and environmental factors may cause lupus, but the causes and disease pathways of this very heterogeneous disease are not well understood. By examining relationships between subtypes of lupus and specific genes, we hope to better understand how lupus is triggered and by what biological pathways it progresses. We show in this work that the STAT4 gene, very recently identified as a lupus risk gene, predisposes specifically to severe manifestations of lupus, including kidney disease.
doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000084
PMCID: PMC2377340  PMID: 18516230
20.  Interferon-γ and Systemic Autoimmunity 
Discovery medicine  2013;16(87):123-131.
The term interferon describes a family of proteins consisting of three major types (I, II, III) which differ in their primary protein sequences, cognate receptors, genetic loci, and cell types responsible for their production. The interferons, especially types I and II, overlap significantly in the genes they control resulting in a shared spectrum of diverse biological effects which includes regulation of both the innate and adaptive immune responses. As such, the interferons are major effectors in the pathogenesis of autoimmunity, especially systemic autoimmunity. The type I IFNs, because they are produced during the early stages of the innate immune response, are thought to play the foremost role in autoimmune responses. However, numerous studies have found that the single type II IFN, IFN-γ, plays an essential role in the development and severity of systemic autoimmunity, particularly systemic lupus erythematosus. This is supported by animal studies where IFN-γ is uniformly required in both spontaneous and induced models of lupus. Although expression of IFN-γ in cells of the innate immune system is almost immediate after activation, expression in adaptive immunity requires a complex orchestration of cellular interactions, signaling events and epigenetic modifications. The multifaceted nature of IFN-γ in adaptive immunity identifies numerous possible therapeutic targets that, because of the essential contribution of IFN-γ to systemic autoimmunity, have the potential for producing significant benefits.
PMCID: PMC3934799  PMID: 23998448
21.  Epigenetic mechanisms of pulmonary hypertension 
Pulmonary Circulation  2011;1(3):347-356.
Epigenetics refers to changes in phenotype and gene expression that occur without alterations in DNA sequence. Epigenetic modifications of the genome can be acquired de novo and are potentially heritable. This review focuses on the emerging recognition of a role for epigenetics in the development of pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH). Lessons learned from the epigenetics in cancer and neurodevelopmental diseases, such as Prader-Willi syndrome, can be applied to PAH. These syndromes suggest that there is substantial genetic and epigenetic cross-talk such that a single phenotype can result from a genetic cause, an epigenetic cause, or a combined abnormality. There are three major mechanisms of epigenetic regulation, including methylation of CpG islands, mediated by DNA methyltransferases, modification of histone proteins, and microRNAs. There is substantial interaction between these epigenetic mechanisms. Recently, it was discovered that there may be an epigenetic component to PAH. In PAH there is downregulation of superoxide dismutase 2 (SOD2) and normoxic activation of hypoxia inducible factor (HIF-1α). This decrease in SOD2 results from methylation of CpG islands in SOD2 by lung DNA methyltransferases. The partial silencing of SOD2 alters redox signaling, activates HIF-1α) and leads to excessive cell proliferation. The same hyperproliferative epigenetic abnormality occurs in cancer. These epigenetic abnormalities can be therapeutically reversed. Epigenetic mechanisms may mediate gene-environment interactions in PAH and explain the great variability in susceptibility to stimuli such as anorexigens, virus, and shunts. Epigenetics may be relevant to the female predisposition to PAH and the incomplete penetrance of BMPR2 mutations in familial PAH.
doi:10.4103/2045-8932.87300
PMCID: PMC3224426  PMID: 22140624
CpG islands; DNA methyl transferases; histone acetylation; small inhibitor RNA; superoxide dismutase 2
22.  The role of epigenetic variation in the pathogenesis of systemic lupus erythematosus 
The focus of the present review is on the extent to which epigenetic alterations influence the development of systemic lupus erythematosus. Lupus is a systemic autoimmune disease characterized by the production of autoantibodies directed at nuclear self-antigens. A DNA methylation defect in CD4+ T cells has long been observed in idiopathic and drug-induced lupus. Recent studies utilizing high-throughput technologies have further characterized the nature of the DNA methylation defect in lupus CD4+ T cells. Emerging evidence in the literature is revealing an increasingly interconnected network of epigenetic dysregulation in lupus. Recent reports describe variable expression of a number of regulatory microRNAs in lupus CD4+ T cells, some of which govern the expression of DNA methyltransferase 1. While studies to date have revealed a significant role for epigenetic defects in the pathogenesis of lupus, the causal nature of epigenetic variation in lupus remains elusive. Future longitudinal epigenetic studies in lupus are therefore needed.
doi:10.1186/ar3484
PMCID: PMC3308098  PMID: 22044622
23.  Environmental Exposure, Estrogen and Two X Chromosomes are Required for Disease Development in an Epigenetic Model of Lupus 
Journal of Autoimmunity  2011;38(2-3):J135-J143.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease primarily afflicting women. The reason for the gender bias is unclear, but genetic susceptibility, estrogen and environmental agents appear to play significant roles in SLE pathogenesis. Environmental agents can contribute to lupus susceptibility through epigenetic mechanisms. We used (C57BL/6 × SJL)F1 mice transgenic for a dominant-negative MEK (dnMEK) that was previously shown to be inducibly and selectively expressed in T cells. In this model, induction of the dnMEK by doxycycline treatment suppresses T cell ERK signaling, decreasing DNA methyltransferase expression and resulting in DNA demethylation, overexpression of immune genes Itgal (CD11a) and Tnfsf7 (CD70), and anti-dsDNA antibody. To examine the role of gender and estrogen in this model, male and female transgenic mice were neutered and implanted with time-release pellets delivering placebo or estrogen. Doxycycline induced IgG anti-dsDNA antibodies in intact and neutered, placebo-treated control female but not male transgenic mice. Glomerular IgG deposits were also found in the kidneys of female but not male transgenic mice, and not in the absence of doxycycline. Estrogen enhanced anti-dsDNA IgG antibodies only in transgenic, ERK-impaired female mice. Decreased ERK activation also resulted in overexpression and demethylation of the X-linked methylation-sensitive gene CD40lg in female but not male mice, consistent with demethylation of the second X chromosome in the females. The results show that both estrogen and female gender contribute to the female predisposition in lupus susceptibility through hormonal and epigenetic X chromosome effects and through suppression of ERK signaling by environmental agents.
doi:10.1016/j.jaut.2011.11.001
PMCID: PMC3312994  PMID: 22142890
Extracellular Receptor Kinase (ERK); Systemic Lupus erythematosus (SLE); Mouse
24.  Time to Renal Disease and End-Stage Renal Disease in PROFILE: A Multiethnic Lupus Cohort 
PLoS Medicine  2006;3(10):e396.
Background
Renal involvement is a serious manifestation of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE); it may portend a poor prognosis as it may lead to end-stage renal disease (ESRD). The purpose of this study was to determine the factors predicting the development of renal involvement and its progression to ESRD in a multi-ethnic SLE cohort (PROFILE).
Methods and Findings
PROFILE includes SLE patients from five different United States institutions. We examined at baseline the socioeconomic–demographic, clinical, and genetic variables associated with the development of renal involvement and its progression to ESRD by univariable and multivariable Cox proportional hazards regression analyses. Analyses of onset of renal involvement included only patients with renal involvement after SLE diagnosis (n = 229). Analyses of ESRD included all patients, regardless of whether renal involvement occurred before, at, or after SLE diagnosis (34 of 438 patients). In addition, we performed a multivariable logistic regression analysis of the variables associated with the development of renal involvement at any time during the course of SLE.
In the time-dependent multivariable analysis, patients developing renal involvement were more likely to have more American College of Rheumatology criteria for SLE, and to be younger, hypertensive, and of African-American or Hispanic (from Texas) ethnicity. Alternative regression models were consistent with these results. In addition to greater accrued disease damage (renal damage excluded), younger age, and Hispanic ethnicity (from Texas), homozygosity for the valine allele of FcγRIIIa (FCGR3A*GG) was a significant predictor of ESRD. Results from the multivariable logistic regression model that included all cases of renal involvement were consistent with those from the Cox model.
Conclusions
Fcγ receptor genotype is a risk factor for progression of renal disease to ESRD. Since the frequency distribution of FCGR3A alleles does not vary significantly among the ethnic groups studied, the additional factors underlying the ethnic disparities in renal disease progression remain to be elucidated.
Fcγ receptor genotype is a risk factor for progression of renal disease to ESRD but does not explain the ethnic disparities in renal disease progression.
Editors' Summary
Background.
Systemic lupus erythematosis (SLE, commonly known as “lupus”) is an illness of many manifestations that appear to result from the immune system attacking components of the body's own cells. One of the unfortunate effects of SLE is kidney damage, which can, in a minority of patients, progress to kidney failure (formally called “end-stage renal disease,” or ESRD). Compared to White Americans, other ethnic groups tend to develop renal complications of lupus more often and with worse outcomes.
Why Was This Study Done?
It is unclear why some people with lupus develop kidney problems. The purpose of this US-based study was to confirm the factors that increase the risk of kidney damage and kidney failure, particularly in racial and ethnic minority patients, and to determine which of these factors accelerate the pace of kidney disease. Knowing these risk factors could allow the development and targeting of interventions, such as screening tests and preventive treatments, to prevent long-term loss of kidney function in patients with lupus.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers measured a number of factors in a multi-ethnic group of 1,008 patients with lupus, almost half of whom had some degree of kidney involvement. They found that those who developed kidney damage after being diagnosed with lupus tended to be younger, to have had lupus for a longer time, and to have experienced more effects of lupus in general than those who did not have kidney involvement. Those who developed kidney problems were also more likely to have been unemployed, to have had fewer years of formal education, and to have had high blood pressure before developing kidney involvement. African-American and Texan Hispanic individuals with lupus were more likely to develop kidney involvement, and tended to develop it more rapidly, than White Americans or Puerto Rican Hispanic ethnicity. Actual kidney failure (ESRD requiring dialysis or kidney transplantation) was more likely to occur among Texan Hispanics with kidney involvement than in the other ethnic groups. Diabetes and high blood pressure were not found to predict ESRD, but people with a particular variant of a protein that helps antibodies bind to cells (know as Fc-gamma receptor IIIa, or FcγRIIIa) were found to be more likely to develop ESRD, and to develop it more quickly.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These results suggest that the emergence and progression of kidney disease in patients with lupus depends on medical, genetic, and socioeconomic factors. Because no single test or intervention can be expected to address all of these factors, those treating patients with lupus must remain aware of the complexity of their patients lives at a variety of levels. In particular, ethnic disparities in the risk of serious kidney disease remain to be addressed.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030396.
MedlinePlus page on lupus
Lupus Foundation of America
American College of Rheumatology pages on lupus
Wikipedia entry on lupus (note: Wikipedia is a free Internet encyclopedia that anyone can edit)
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0030396
PMCID: PMC1626549  PMID: 17076550
25.  Role of DNA Methylation and Epigenetic Silencing of HAND2 in Endometrial Cancer Development 
PLoS Medicine  2013;10(11):e1001551.
TB filled in by Laureen
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Background
Endometrial cancer incidence is continuing to rise in the wake of the current ageing and obesity epidemics. Much of the risk for endometrial cancer development is influenced by the environment and lifestyle. Accumulating evidence suggests that the epigenome serves as the interface between the genome and the environment and that hypermethylation of stem cell polycomb group target genes is an epigenetic hallmark of cancer. The objective of this study was to determine the functional role of epigenetic factors in endometrial cancer development.
Methods and Findings
Epigenome-wide methylation analysis of >27,000 CpG sites in endometrial cancer tissue samples (n = 64) and control samples (n = 23) revealed that HAND2 (a gene encoding a transcription factor expressed in the endometrial stroma) is one of the most commonly hypermethylated and silenced genes in endometrial cancer. A novel integrative epigenome-transcriptome-interactome analysis further revealed that HAND2 is the hub of the most highly ranked differential methylation hotspot in endometrial cancer. These findings were validated using candidate gene methylation analysis in multiple clinical sample sets of tissue samples from a total of 272 additional women. Increased HAND2 methylation was a feature of premalignant endometrial lesions and was seen to parallel a decrease in RNA and protein levels. Furthermore, women with high endometrial HAND2 methylation in their premalignant lesions were less likely to respond to progesterone treatment. HAND2 methylation analysis of endometrial secretions collected using high vaginal swabs taken from women with postmenopausal bleeding specifically identified those patients with early stage endometrial cancer with both high sensitivity and high specificity (receiver operating characteristics area under the curve = 0.91 for stage 1A and 0.97 for higher than stage 1A). Finally, mice harbouring a Hand2 knock-out specifically in their endometrium were shown to develop precancerous endometrial lesions with increasing age, and these lesions also demonstrated a lack of PTEN expression.
Conclusions
HAND2 methylation is a common and crucial molecular alteration in endometrial cancer that could potentially be employed as a biomarker for early detection of endometrial cancer and as a predictor of treatment response. The true clinical utility of HAND2 DNA methylation, however, requires further validation in prospective studies.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Editors' Summary
Background
Cancer, which is responsible for 13% of global deaths, can develop anywhere in the body, but all cancers are characterized by uncontrolled cell growth and reduced cellular differentiation (the process by which unspecialized cells such as “stem” cells become specialized during development, tissue repair, and normal cell turnover). Genetic alterations—changes in the sequence of nucleotides (DNA's building blocks) in specific genes—are required for this cellular transformation and subsequent cancer development (carcinogenesis). However, recent evidence suggests that epigenetic modifications—reversible, heritable changes in gene function that occur in the absence of nucleotide sequence changes—may also be involved in carcinogenesis. For example, the addition of methyl groups to a set of genes called stem cell polycomb group target genes (PCGTs; polycomb genes control the expression of their target genes by modifying their DNA or associated proteins) is one of the earliest molecular changes in human cancer development, and increasing evidence suggests that hypermethylation of PCGTs is an epigenetic hallmark of cancer.
Why Was This Study Done?
The methylation of PCGTs, which is triggered by age and by environmental factors that are associated with cancer development, reduces cellular differentiation and leads to the accumulation of undifferentiated cells that are susceptible to cancer development. It is unclear, however, whether epigenetic modifications have a causal role in carcinogenesis. Here, the researchers investigate the involvement of epigenetic factors in the development of endometrial (womb) cancer. The risk of endometrial cancer (which affects nearly 50,000 women annually in the United States) is largely determined by environmental and lifestyle factors. Specifically, the risk of this cancer is increased in women in whom estrogen (a hormone that drives cell proliferation in the endometrium) is functionally dominant over progesterone (a hormone that inhibits endometrial proliferation and causes cell differentiation); obese women and women who have taken estrogen-only hormone replacement therapies fall into this category. Thus, endometrial cancer is an ideal model in which to study whether epigenetic mechanisms underlie carcinogenesis.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers collected data on genome-wide DNA methylation at cytosine- and guanine-rich sites in endometrial cancers and normal endometrium and integrated this information with the human interactome and transcriptome (all the physical interactions between proteins and all the genes expressed, respectively, in a cell) using an algorithm called Functional Epigenetic Modules (FEM). This analysis identified HAND2 as the hub of the most highly ranked differential methylation hotspot in endometrial cancer. HAND2 is a progesterone-regulated stem cell PCGT. It encodes a transcription factor that is expressed in the endometrial stroma (the connective tissue that lies below the epithelial cells in which most endometrial cancers develop) and that suppresses the production of the growth factors that mediate the growth-inducing effects of estrogen on the endometrial epithelium. The researchers hypothesized, therefore, that epigenetic deregulation of HAND2 could be a key step in endometrial cancer development. In support of this hypothesis, the researchers report that HAND2 methylation was increased in premalignant endometrial lesions (cancer-prone, abnormal-looking tissue) compared to normal endometrium, and was associated with suppression of HAND2 expression. Moreover, a high level of endometrial HAND2 methylation in premalignant lesions predicted a poor response to progesterone treatment (which stops the growth of some endometrial cancers), and analysis of HAND2 methylation in endometrial secretions collected from women with postmenopausal bleeding (a symptom of endometrial cancer) accurately identified individuals with early stage endometrial cancer. Finally, mice in which the Hand2 gene was specifically deleted in the endometrium developed precancerous endometrial lesions with age.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These and other findings identify HAND2 methylation as a common, key molecular alteration in endometrial cancer. These findings need to be confirmed in more women, and studies are needed to determine the immediate molecular and cellular consequences of HAND2 silencing in endometrial stromal cells. Nevertheless, these results suggest that HAND2 methylation could potentially be used as a biomarker for the early detection of endometrial cancer and for predicting treatment response. More generally, these findings support the idea that methylation of HAND2 (and, by extension, the methylation of other PCGTs) is not a passive epigenetic feature of cancer but is functionally involved in cancer development, and provide a framework for identifying other genes that are epigenetically regulated and functionally important in carcinogenesis.
Additional Information
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001551
The US National Cancer Institute provides information on all aspects of cancer and has detailed information about endometrial cancer for patients and professionals (in English and Spanish)
The not-for-profit organization American Cancer Society provides information on cancer and how it develops and specific information on endometrial cancer (in several languages)
The UK National Health Service Choices website includes an introduction to cancer, a page on endometrial cancer, and a personal story about endometrial cancer
The not-for-profit organization Cancer Research UK provides general information about cancer and specific information about endometrial cancer
Wikipedia has a page on cancer epigenetics (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
The Eve Appeal charity that supported this research provides useful information on gynecological cancers
doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001551
PMCID: PMC3825654  PMID: 24265601

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