Department of Neurological Surgery, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), San Francisco, CA, USA
Dexamethasone (DEX) is routinely prescribed in brain tumor patients to limit vasogenic edema but may also exacerbate immunosuppression and adversely affect survival. The wide spectrum of dosing and individual variation in glucocorticoid (GC) response makes it difficult to assess the impact of DEX exposures. A potential marker of steroid pathway activation and GC load affecting the immune system are induced changes in chromatin structure marked by DNA methylation. We identified DEX-responsive DNA methylation sites in blood leukocytes from glioma patients treated with the drug at various doses and times during the course of their disease. Using weighted co-methylation network analysis, we show that DEX-induced hypomethylation includes well-known regulators of GC receptor (GR) sensitivity (e.g., FK506 binding protein 51: FKBP5) and inflammation (e.g., myeloperoxidase: MPO) and is enriched at genomic locations containing glucocorticoid receptor (GR) binding sites. Elastic net regression modeling was used to train a multilocus GC methylation index (GCMI) that discriminates current DEX users and non-users. GCMI scores showed wide interindividual variation among cases and DEX naïve control subjects. Using independent samples of DEX naïve and exposed glioma patients we show that the GCMI is a sensitive and specific indicator of DEX exposure. GCMI measured in non-glioma controls indicated sensitivity to non-DEX steroid treatments (e.g. prednisolone, fluticasone). Subjects with elevated neutrophil and decreased lymphocyte counts demonstrated high GCMI scores, reflecting the clinically relevant in vivo impact of this marker. Among 195 IDH wildtype and hTERT non-mutant glioma subjects, the GCMI was associated with a HR of 1.11 (95% CI 1.06-1.17) p< 0.0001 in Cox survival models that included age and tumor grade. We conclude that epigenetic remodeling in the peripheral immune compartment in response to DEX exposures is a rich source of potentially powerful markers of individual response to GC pathway activation and associated alterations in the immune response.