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DNA methylation 101: what is important to know about DNA methylation and its role in SLE risk and disease heterogeneity.


SLE is a complex autoimmune disease that results from the interplay of genetics, epigenetics and environmental exposures. DNA methylation is an epigenetic mechanism that regulates gene expression and tissue differentiation. Among all the epigenetic modifications, DNA methylation perturbations have been the most widely studied in SLE. It mediates processes relevant to SLE, including lymphocyte development, X-chromosome inactivation and the suppression of endogenous retroviruses. The establishment of most DNA methylation marks occurs in utero; however, a small percentage of epigenetic marks are dynamic and can change throughout a person's lifetime and in relation to exposures. In this review, we discuss the current understanding of the biology of DNA methylation and its regulators, the measurement and interpretation of methylation marks, the effects of genetics on DNA methylation and the role of environmental exposures with relevance to SLE. We also summarise research findings associated with SLE disease risk and heterogeneity. The robust finding of hypomethylation of interferon-responsive genes in patients with SLE and new associations beyond interferon-responsive genes such as cell-specific methylation abnormalities are described. We also discuss methylation changes associated with lupus nephritis, autoantibody status and disease activity. Lastly, we explore future research directions, emphasising the need for longitudinal studies, cell tissue and context-specific profiling, as well as integrative approaches. With new technologies, DNA methylation perturbations could be targeted and edited, offering novel therapeutic approaches.

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