Epigenetic DNA modifications can predict asthma and rhinitis

Researchers from the CiiM and University of Groningen identify biomarkers in the nasal airways

The prevalence of allergic diseases like asthma and rhinitis has strongly increased in the last decades. A combination of genetic and environmental factors causes the diseases. Researchers from the Centre for Individualised Infection Medicine (CiiM), a joint venture of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig and the Hannover Medical School (MHH), and the University of Groningen conducted a study to identify potential biomarkers for the diseases. In a cohort of more than 400 Dutch children, they found molecular modifications of the DNA in the nasal airways that are associated with asthma and rhinitis. The results were published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Face of boy sneezing.“We study chemical modifications of the DNA that do not change the nucleotide sequence. These epigenetic marks are important regulators for the activity of the targeted genes,” says Dr Cheng-Jian Xu, head of the CiiM research group “Bioinformatics and Computational Genomics” since June 2019. Xu and his team focus on a better understanding of immune-related diseases by integrating epigenetic profiling and single-cell technologies using systems genetics approaches. Currently, his research group is located in the TWINCORE – Centre for Experimental and Clinical Infection Research, jointly founded by the MHH and HZI. In collaboration with researchers from the University of Groningen and other international partners, Xu analysed correlations between the epigenetic modifications in the genome of cells in the nasal airways and the occurrence of allergic diseases. “Such epigenome-wide association studies are powerful tools to determine how epigenetic factors interplay with diseases”, says Cancan Qi, PhD student in Xu’s group and first author of the study. The researchers consistently found different epigenetic patterns between healthy individuals and individuals suffering from asthma and rhinitis. The DNA modifications can serve as biomarkers to predict the diseases in children.

The researchers also found indications that exposure to pets early in life potentially reduces the risk of developing asthma and rhinitis. The modification of a gene that is highly active in cells of the nasal airways is the mediator of the effect. “Our study shows a molecular mechanism through which an environmental factor impacts the development of asthma and rhinitis. This contributes to a better understanding of these very complex diseases,” says Xu.

Original publication:

Cancan Qi*, Yale Jiang*, Ivana V. Yang, Erick Forno, Ting Wang, Judith M. Vonk, Ulrike Gehring, Henriëtte A. Smit, Edith B. Milanzi, Orestes A. Carpaij, Marijn Berg, Laura Hesse, Sharon Brouwer, Jonathan Cardwell, Cornelis J. Vermeulen, Edna Acosta-Pérez, Glorisa Canino, Nadia Boutaoui, Maarten van den Berge, Sarah A. Teichmann, Martijn C. Nawijn, Wei Chen, Juan C. Celedón+, Cheng-Jian Xu+, Gerard H Koppelman+. Nasal DNA methylation profiling of asthma and rhinitis. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 2020 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaci.2019.12.911 (*contributed equally as first authors, +contributed equally as senior authors)