The relationship between the expression of HLA-DR antigens and the HLA-DR alpha gene methylation was examined in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Using permanent B cell lines, we found reduced DR expression in SLE. The low DR expression was correlated with high anti-DNA antibody titers in patients' sera. The amounts of DR alpha message were lower in SLE cells than in normal controls, suggesting that the low expression of DR antigens is associated with gene functions. The extent of DNA methylation was examined at five CCGG sites in the HLA-DR alpha locus. DNA from both SLE and normal cells showed variable methylation patterns. Since the DR alpha gene is a single-copy gene, such a variability is the result of assaying a mixture of transformed clones containing methylated DR alpha gene, with other clones containing unmethylated DR alpha gene. A distinctive feature of normal cells was a consistent methylation pattern: 12 normal cell lines showed exactly the same pattern. In contrast, 28 SLE cell lines showed a cell-line-specific methylation, and hypermethylation at the DR alpha locus. The hypermethylation is often associated with transcriptionally inactive genes. Thus, our results suggest that (a) B cells with hypermethylated DR genes might express no or few DR antigens; (b) the ratio of cells with differently methylated DR genes is consistent in normal individuals, while, in SLE patients, cells with hypermethylated DR genes predominate, resulting in apparently reduced DR antigen expression; and (c) the aberrant DR expression could be associated directly with immunoregulatory dysfunctions in SLE disease.


H Sano, L J Compton, N Shiomi, A D Steinberg, R A Jackson, T Sasaki


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