Research ArticleHuman Immunology

A validated gene regulatory network and GWAS identifies early regulators of T cell–associated diseases

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Science Translational Medicine  11 Nov 2015:
Vol. 7, Issue 313, pp. 313ra178
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aad2722

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Identifying disease before it starts

Diseases may be easier to treat if caught early. However, means of identifying early disease—especially before symptoms appear—are in short supply. Now, Gustafsson et al. identify early regulators of T cell–mediated disease by finding transcription factors involved in T cell differentiation that are enriched in disease-associated polymorphisms. Three such experimentally validated transcription factors—GATA3, MAF, and MYB—and their targets were found to be differentially expressed in asymptomatic stages of two different T cell–mediated diseases—multiple sclerosis and seasonal allergic rhinitis. These data not only provide potential markers of disease development but also shed light on the mechanistic underpinning of T cell–mediated disease.


Early regulators of disease may increase understanding of disease mechanisms and serve as markers for presymptomatic diagnosis and treatment. However, early regulators are difficult to identify because patients generally present after they are symptomatic. We hypothesized that early regulators of T cell–associated diseases could be found by identifying upstream transcription factors (TFs) in T cell differentiation and by prioritizing hub TFs that were enriched for disease-associated polymorphisms. A gene regulatory network (GRN) was constructed by time series profiling of the transcriptomes and methylomes of human CD4+ T cells during in vitro differentiation into four helper T cell lineages, in combination with sequence-based TF binding predictions. The TFs GATA3, MAF, and MYB were identified as early regulators and validated by ChIP-seq (chromatin immunoprecipitation sequencing) and small interfering RNA knockdowns. Differential mRNA expression of the TFs and their targets in T cell–associated diseases supports their clinical relevance. To directly test if the TFs were altered early in disease, T cells from patients with two T cell–mediated diseases, multiple sclerosis and seasonal allergic rhinitis, were analyzed. Strikingly, the TFs were differentially expressed during asymptomatic stages of both diseases, whereas their targets showed altered expression during symptomatic stages. This analytical strategy to identify early regulators of disease by combining GRNs with genome-wide association studies may be generally applicable for functional and clinical studies of early disease development.

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