Epigenetics of Sepsis

Alexandra Binnie, Jennifer L Y Tsang, Pingzhao Hu, Gabriela Carrasqueiro, Pedro Castelo-Branco, Claudia C Dos Santos
Critical Care Medicine 2020 February 20

OBJECTIVES: Recent evidence from the fields of microbiology and immunology, as well as a small number of human sepsis studies, suggest that epigenetic regulation may play a central role in the pathogenesis of sepsis. The term "epigenetics" refers to regulatory mechanisms that control gene expression but are not related to changes in DNA sequence. These include DNA methylation, histone modifications, and regulation of transcription via non-coding RNAs. Epigenetic modifications, occurring in response to external stressors, lead to changes in gene expression, and thus lie at the intersection between genetics and the environment. In this review, we examine data from in vitro studies, animal studies, and the existing human sepsis studies in epigenetics to demonstrate that epigenetic mechanisms are likely central to the pathogenesis of sepsis and that epigenetic therapies may have potential in the treatment of sepsis and its associated organ failures.

DATA SOURCES: Online search of published scientific literature via Pubmed using the term "epigenetics" in combination with the terms "sepsis", "infection", "bacterial infection", "viral infection", "critical illness", "acute respiratory distress syndrome", and "acute lung injury".

STUDY SELECTION: Articles were chosen for inclusion based on their relevance to sepsis, acute inflammation, sepsis-related immune suppression, and sepsis-related organ failure. Reference lists were reviewed to identify additional relevant articles.

DATA EXTRACTION: Relevant data was extracted and synthesized for narrative review.

DATA SYNTHESIS: Epigenetic regulation is a key determinant of gene expression in sepsis. At the onset of infection, host-pathogen interactions often result in epigenetic alterations to host cells that favor pathogen survival. In parallel, the host inflammatory response is characterized by epigenetic modifications in key regulatory genes, including tumor necrosis factor and interleukin-1β. In human sepsis patients, multiple epigenetic modifying enzymes show differential expression in early sepsis, suggesting a role for epigenetics in coordinating the response to infection. In the later stages of sepsis, epigenetic modifications accompany endotoxin tolerance and the immune-suppressed state. In animal models, treatment with epigenetic modifiers can mitigate the effects of sepsis and improve survival as well as reverse sepsis-associated organ injury.

CONCLUSIONS: Epigenetic modifications are associated with key phases of sepsis, from the host-pathogen interaction, to acute inflammation, to immune suppression. Epigenetic markers show promise in the diagnosis and prognosis of sepsis and epigenetic modifying agents show promise as therapeutic tools in animal models of sepsis. Human studies in the area of epigenetics are sorely lacking and should be a priority for sepsis researchers.

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