Background: DNA methylation profiles associated with childhood asthma might provide novel insights into disease pathogenesis. We did an epigenome-wide association study to assess methylation profiles associated with childhood asthma.
Methods: We did a large-scale epigenome-wide association study (EWAS) within the Mechanisms of the Development of ALLergy (MeDALL) project. We examined epigenome-wide methylation using Illumina Infinium Human Methylation450 BeadChips (450K) in whole blood in 207 children with asthma and 610 controls at age 4-5 years, and 185 children with asthma and 546 controls at age 8 years using a cross-sectional case-control design. After identification of differentially methylated CpG sites in the discovery analysis, we did a validation study in children (4-16 years; 247 cases and 2949 controls) from six additional European cohorts and meta-analysed the results. We next investigated whether replicated CpG sites in cord blood predict later asthma in 1316 children. We subsequently investigated cell-type-specific methylation of the identified CpG sites in eosinophils and respiratory epithelial cells and their related gene-expression signatures. We studied cell-type specificity of the asthma association of the replicated CpG sites in 455 respiratory epithelial cell samples, collected by nasal brushing of 16-year-old children as well as in DNA isolated from blood eosinophils (16 with asthma, eight controls [age 2-56 years]) and compared this with whole-blood DNA samples of 74 individuals with asthma and 93 controls (age 1-79 years). Whole-blood transcriptional profiles associated with replicated CpG sites were annotated using RNA-seq data of subsets of peripheral blood mononuclear cells sorted by fluorescence-activated cell sorting.
Findings: 27 methylated CpG sites were identified in the discovery analysis. 14 of these CpG sites were replicated and passed genome-wide significance (p<1·14 × 10-7) after meta-analysis. Consistently lower methylation levels were observed at all associated loci across childhood from age 4 to 16 years in participants with asthma, but not in cord blood at birth. All 14 CpG sites were significantly associated with asthma in the second replication study using whole-blood DNA, and were strongly associated with asthma in purified eosinophils. Whole-blood transcriptional signatures associated with these CpG sites indicated increased activation of eosinophils, effector and memory CD8 T cells and natural killer cells, and reduced number of naive T cells. Five of the 14 CpG sites were associated with asthma in respiratory epithelial cells, indicating cross-tissue epigenetic effects.
Interpretation: Reduced whole-blood DNA methylation at 14 CpG sites acquired after birth was strongly associated with childhood asthma. These CpG sites and their associated transcriptional profiles indicate activation of eosinophils and cytotoxic T cells in childhood asthma. Our findings merit further investigations of the role of epigenetics in a clinical context.
Funding: EU and the Seventh Framework Programme (the MeDALL project).
Copyright © 2018 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.