Introduction. Alu repeats, belonging to the Short Interspersed Repetitive Elements (SINEs) class, contain about 25% of CpG sites in the human genome. They are located in gene-rich regions, so their methylation is an important transcriptional regulation mechanism. Aberrant Alu repeats methylation has been associated with tumor aggressiveness and investigated in some solid tumors, but the global Alu methylation level has not yet been investigated in hematological malignancies. Moreover, today, some of the techniques designed to measure global DNA methylation are focused on the methylation level of specific genomic compartments, including repeat elements.
In this work we propose a new method for investigating Alu differential methylation, employing droplet digital PCR (ddPCR) technology, applied in patients affected by chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) and chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML).
Methods. The study included a total of 46 patients: 30 CLL patients, 7 patients with MDS at intermediate/high risk, and 9 CMML patients. The study also involved acute promyelocytic leukemia-derived NB4 cell line, either untreated or treated with azacytidine (AZA) 0.75 µM or decytabine (DEC) 0.75 µM. Four healthy donors (HD) were also included as controls. For each DNA sample two aliquots of 250ng of gDNA were simultaneously digested (with 1 unit of Alu-in/sensitive isoschizomers either MspI or HpaII) and ligated (to a previously prepared synthetic adaptor) in parallel in two separate tubes.
Considering that the genomic DNA amount in a human diploid cell is about 6 pg/cell, for each sample we calculated the percentage of methylated consensus Alu sequences as the ratio between the sum of positive droplets obtained from the three wells of both HpaII (MH) and MspI (MM) final dilutions, according to the following formula: [1-(sumMH/sumMM)]x100. The significance level was set at p<0.05 for all analyses.
Results. Using our ddPCR assay, we observed a significant decrease of the global Alu methylation level in DNA extracted from NB4 cells treated with DEC, as compared to untreated cells, and a minor decrease with AZA (p=0.058). Moreover, comparing the global Alu methylation levels at diagnosis and after AZA treatment in MDS patients, we observed a statistically significant decrease of Alu sequences methylation after therapy as compared to diagnosis.
We also extended the assessment of our assay in CLL patients at diagnosis. We observed a significant decrease of the Alu methylation level in CLL patients compared to HD. CLL patients were also classified in the following three cytogenetic risk groups according to the karyotypic alterations identified by Fluorescent In Situ Hybridization (FISH): low (with isolated 13q deletion), intermediate (without 11q, 13q and 17p deletions or with trisomy 12), and high risk (with 11q or, 17p deletions, or more than two chromosomal aberrations). Alu methylation status of the low and high-risk groups was more significantly reduced compared to HD, whereas considering intermediate-risk patients the difference was less evident.
Finally, for CMML patients, a significant decrease of Alu sequences methylation was observed in patients harboring the main SRSF2 gene hotspot. However, these preliminary results should be confirmed by extending the analysis to other CMML patients.
Conclusions. In our work, we propose a new method to investigate Alu differential methylation based on ddPCR technology. This assay represents an alternative to conventional quantitative-PCR (qPCR), introducing ddPCR as a more sensitive and immediate technique for Alu methylation analysis. Moreover, compared to qPCR, our ddPCR Alu assay may be carried out using very small amounts of digested gDNA (about 6 pg), and does not require a reference gene for the analysis of ddPCR data.
To date, this is the first application of ddPCR to study global DNA methylation by inspecting DNA repeats. This approach may be useful to profile patients affected by hematologic malignancies for diagnostic/prognostic purpose.
No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.