Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a primary contributor to low-back pain, a leading cause of disability. Progression of DDD is aided by inflammatory cytokines in the intervertebral disc (IVD), particularly TNF-α and IL-1β, but current treatments fail to effectively target this mechanism. The objective of this study was to explore the feasibility of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) epigenome editing-based therapy for DDD, by modulation of TNFR1/IL1R1 signaling in pathological human IVD cells. Human IVD cells from the nucleus pulposus of patients receiving surgery for back pain were obtained and the regulation of TNFR1/IL1R1 signaling by a lentiviral CRISPR epigenome editing system was tested. These cells were tested for successful lentiviral transduction/expression of deactivated Cas9 fused to Krüppel Associated Box system and regulation of TNFR1/IL1R1 expression. TNFR1/IL1R1 signaling disruption was investigated through measurement of NF-κB activity, apoptosis, and anabolic/catabolic changes in gene expression postinflammatory challenge. CRISPR epigenome editing systems were effectively introduced into pathological human IVD cells and significantly downregulated TNFR1 and IL1R1. This downregulation significantly attenuated deleterious TNFR1 signaling but not IL1R1 signaling. This is attributed to less robust IL1R1 expression downregulation, and IL-1β-driven reversal of IL1R1 expression downregulation in a portion of patient IVD cells. In addition, RNAseq data indicated novel transcription factor targets, IRF1 and TFAP2C, as being primary regulators of inflammatory signaling in IVD cells. These results demonstrate the feasibility of CRISPR epigenome editing of inflammatory receptors in pathological IVD cells, but highlight a limitation in epigenome targeting of IL1R1. This method has potential application as a novel gene therapy for DDD, to attenuate the deleterious effect of inflammatory cytokines present in the degenerative IVD.
Keywords: CRISPR; degenerative disc disease; epigenome editing; gene therapy; inflammation; receptor.