Epigenetic biomarker discovery in inflammatory bowel disease: unearthing clues for disease pathogenesis?
Ventham, Nicholas Toby
Epigenetic alterations including DNA methylation and microRNAs may provide important insights into gene-environment interaction in complex immune diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). An integrative genome-wide approach was used to analyse whole blood genetic, DNA methylation and gene expression data in 240 newly diagnosed IBD patients and 190 controls. Using the Illumina 450k array, differences in whole blood DNA methylation were observed in IBD cases versus controls including 439 differentially methylated positions (DMPs) and 5 differentially methylated regions (DMRs). The top DMP (RPS6KA2, discovery Holm adjusted p=1.22×10-16, replication p=1×10-9) and DMRs (VMP1, ITGB2, TXK) were replicated in an independent cohort using pyrosequencing. Paired genetic and epigenetic data allowed the identification of methylation quantitative trait loci (meQTL); two of the five DMRs (VMP1, ITGB2) demonstrated significant association with genetic polymorphisms. Methylation in the VMP1/microRNA-21 region was significantly associated with two single nucleotide polymorphisms (cg18942579 -rs10853015 [meQTL FDR adjusted p=9.4 × 10-5], cg16936953 - rs8078424 [meQTL FDR adjusted p=8.8 × 10-5]), both of which are in linkage disequilibrium with a known IBD susceptibility variant (rs1292053). Separated leukocyte methylation data highlight the cell type of origin of epigenetic signals seen in whole blood. IBD-associated hypermethylation within the TXK gene transcription start-site negatively correlated with gene expression in whole blood and CD8+ T-cells, but not other cell types, highlighting that cell-specificity and gene location-specificity of DNA methylation change is critical when associating methylation and gene expression. These data offer significant translational potential as diagnostic biomarkers. Least absolute shrinkage and selection operator (lasso) modelling identified 30 methylation probes can be used to accurately discriminate IBD cases from controls (Area under receiver operating characteristic curve = 0.898, sensitivity = 90.6%, specificity = 84.7%). MicroRNAs (miRNA) are small non-coding nucleic acids that have the capacity to modulate gene expression. MiRNAs have been increasingly implicated in many of the important IBD pathogenic pathways including autophagy, intestinal epithelial barrier integrity and the Th17 pathway. In common with all epigenetic mechanisms, miRNA expression is dynamic and cell-specific. Small RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) was performed on RNA extracted from CD14+, CD4+ and CD8+ cells isolated from 8 newly diagnosed cases of ileal or ileocolonic CD and 8 age and sex matched controls. There was a median of 2.4 million reads per sample (range 132,800-12.8 million reads per sample). One microRNA was differentially expressed in CD compared with controls (hsa-miR-503-5p log fold change = 0.7, FDR adjusted p = 9.1 × 10-5) in CD4+ lymphocytes, however this finding did not remain significant when alternative normalisation methods were used. The small number of cases used in microRNA analyses raises the possibility of both type I and II error, and limits the ability to draw firm conclusion from this series of experiments. Site-specific differences in DNA methylation in IBD relate to underlying genotype and associate with cell-specific alteration in gene expression. This is the most detailed characterisation of the epigenome carried out in IBD to date. The findings strongly validate this approach in complex disease, are replicable, and provide clear translational opportunities.