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J Immunol. 2009 Jan 1;182(1):259-73.

Epigenetic regulation of Foxp3 expression in regulatory T cells by DNA methylation.

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  • 1Department of Gene and Cell Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY 10029, USA.


Foxp3, a winged-helix family transcription factor, serves as the master switch for CD4(+) regulatory T cells (Treg). We identified a unique and evolutionarily conserved CpG-rich island of the Foxp3 nonintronic upstream enhancer and discovered that a specific site within it was unmethylated in natural Treg (nTreg) but heavily methylated in naive CD4(+) T cells, activated CD4(+) T cells, and peripheral TGFbeta-induced Treg in which it was bound by DNMT1, DNMT3b, MeCP2, and MBD2. Demethylation of this CpG site using the DNA methyltransferase inhibitor 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine (Aza) induced acetylation of histone 3, interaction with TIEG1 and Sp1, and resulted in strong and stable induction of Foxp3. Conversely, IL-6 resulted in methylation of this site and repression of Foxp3 expression. Aza plus TGFbeta-induced Treg resembled nTreg, expressing similar receptors, cytokines, and stable suppressive activity. Strong Foxp3 expression and suppressor activity could be induced in a variety of T cells, including human CD4(+)CD25(-) T cells. Epigenetic regulation of Foxp3 can be predictably controlled with DNMT inhibitors to generate functional, stable, and specific Treg.

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