Background: Uterine leiomyomas, also known as uterine fibroids or myomas, are the most common benign gynecological tumors and are found in women of reproductive and postmenopausal age. There is an exceptionally high prevalence of this tumor in women by the age of 50 years. Black women are particularly affected, with an increased incidence, earlier age of onset, larger and faster growing fibroids and greater severity of symptoms as compared to White women. Although advances in identifying genetic and environmental factors to delineate these fibroids have already been made, only recently has the role of epigenomics in the pathogenesis of this disease been considered.
Objective and rationale: Over recent years, studies have identified multiple epigenomic aberrations that may contribute to leiomyoma development and growth. This review will focus on the most recent discoveries in three categories of epigenomic changes found in uterine fibroids, namely aberrant DNA methylation, histone tail modifications and histone variant exchange, and their translation into altered target gene architecture and transcriptional outcome. The findings demonstrating how the altered 3D shape of the enhancer can regulate gene expression from millions of base pairs away will be discussed. Additionally, translational implications of these discoveries and potential roadblocks in leiomyoma treatment will be addressed.
Search methods: A comprehensive PubMed search was performed to identify published articles containing keywords relevant to the focus of the review, such as: uterine leiomyoma, uterine fibroids, epigenetic alterations, epigenomics, stem cells, chromatin modifications, extracellular matrix [ECM] organization, DNA methylation, enhancer, histone post-translational modifications and dysregulated gene expression. Articles until September 2021 were explored and evaluated to identify relevant updates in the field. Most of the articles focused on in the discussion were published between 2015 and 2021, although some key discoveries made before 2015 were included for background information and foundational purposes. We apologize to the authors whose work was not included because of space restrictions or inadvertent omission.
Outcomes: Chemical alterations to the DNA structure and of nucleosomal histones, without changing the underlying DNA sequence, have now been implicated in the phenotypic manifestation of uterine leiomyomas. Genome-wide DNA methylation analysis has revealed subsets of either suppressed or overexpressed genes accompanied by aberrant promoter methylation. Furthermore, differential promoter access resulting from altered 3D chromatin structure and histone modifications plays a role in regulating transcription of key genes thought to be involved in leiomyoma etiology. The dysregulated genes function in tumor suppression, apoptosis, angiogenesis, ECM formation, a variety of cancer-related signaling pathways and stem cell differentiation. Aberrant DNA methylation or histone modification is also observed in altering enhancer architecture, which leads to changes in enhancer-promoter contact strength, producing novel explanations for the overexpression of high mobility group AT-hook 2 and gene dysregulation found in mediator complex subunit 12 mutant fibroids. While many molecular mechanisms and epigenomic features have been investigated, the basis for the racial disparity observed among those in the Black population remains unclear.
Wider implications: A comprehensive understanding of the exact pathogenesis of uterine leiomyoma is lacking and requires attention as it can provide clues for prevention and viable non-surgical treatment. These findings will widen our knowledge of the role epigenomics plays in the mechanisms related to uterine leiomyoma development and highlight novel approaches for the prevention and identification of epigenome targets for long-term non-invasive treatment options of this significantly common disease.
Keywords: 3D-chromatin structure; DNA methylation; enhancer architecture; epigenomics; histone modification; stem cells; uterine leiomyoma.
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