Fumarates target the metabolic-epigenetic interplay of brain-homing T cells in multiple sclerosis

Achilles Ntranos, Vasilis Ntranos, Valentina Bonnefil, Jia Liu, Seunghee Kim-Schulze, Ye He, Yunjiao Zhu, Rachel Brandstadter, Corey T. Watson, Andrew J. Sharp, Ilana Katz Sand, Patrizia Casaccia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Cell-permeable formulations of metabolites, such as fumaric acid esters, have been used as highly effective immunomodulators in patients with multiple sclerosis and yet their mechanism of action remains elusive. Since fumaric acid esters are metabolites, and cell metabolism is highly intertwined with the epigenetic regulation of gene expression, we investigated whether this metabolic-epigenetic interplay could be leveraged for therapeutic purposes. To this end we recruited 47 treatment-naïve and 35 fumaric acid ester-treated patients with multiple sclerosis, as well as 16 glatiramer acetate-treated patients as a non-metabolite treatment control. Here we identify a significant immunomodulatory effect of fumaric acid esters on the expression of the brain-homing chemokine receptor CCR6 in CD4 and CD8 T cells of patients with multiple sclerosis, which include T helper-17 and T cytotoxic-17 cells. We report differences in DNA methylation of CD4 T cells isolated from untreated and treated patients with multiple sclerosis, using the Illumina EPIC 850K BeadChip. We first demonstrate that Krebs cycle intermediates, such as fumaric acid esters, have a significantly higher impact on epigenome-wide DNA methylation changes in CD4 T cells compared to amino-acid polymers such as glatiramer acetate. We then define a fumaric acid ester treatment-specific hypermethylation effect on microRNA MIR-21, which is critical for the differentiation of T helper-17 cells. This hypermethylation effect was attributed to the subpopulation of T helper-17 cells using a decomposition analysis and was further validated in an independent prospective cohort of seven patients before and after treatment with fumaric acid esters. In vitro treatment of CD4 and CD8 T cells with fumaric acid esters supported a direct and dose-dependent effect on DNA methylation at the MIR-21 promoter. Finally, the upregulation of miR-21 transcripts and CCR6 expression was inhibited if CD4 or CD8 T cells stimulated under T helper-17 or T cytotoxic-17 polarizing conditions were treated with fumaric acid esters in vitro. These data collectively define a direct link between fumaric acid ester treatment and hypermethylation of the MIR-21 locus in both CD4 and CD8 T cells and suggest that the immunomodulatory effect of fumaric acid esters in multiple sclerosis is at least in part due to the epigenetic regulation of the brain-homing CCR6+ CD4 and CD8 T cells.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)647-661
Number of pages15
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2019


  • CD4 T cells
  • DNA methylation
  • fumaric acid esters
  • metabolic-epigenetic interplay
  • multiple sclerosis


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