The overall objectives of our lab are directed at understanding the role of epigenetics in cancer and to investigate the therapeutic potential of interventions directed at epigenetic processes. We approach this from an epigenomic perspective by combining innovative molecular biology and computational techniques with genome wide detection platforms.

The Hirst Lab publishes epigenomic data at the Canadian Epigenetics, Environment and Health Research Consortium (CEEHRC).

 More information about the Hirst lab is available here.


Selected Publications

A novel methylated cell-free DNA marker panel to monitor treatment response in metastatic prostate cancer

Madonna R Peter, Misha Bilenky, Yuliang Shi, Jiajie Pu, Shivani Kamdar, Aaron R Hansen, Neil E Fleshner, Srikala S Sridhar, Anthony M Joshua, Martin Hirst, Wei Xu, Bharati Bapat.

Aim: This study examined circulating cell-free DNA (cfDNA) biomarkers associated with androgen treatment resistance in metastatic castration resistance prostate cancer (mCRPC). Materials & methods: We designed a panel of nine candidate cfDNA methylation markers using droplet digital PCR (Methyl-ddPCR) and assessed methylation levels in sequentially collected cfDNA samples from patients with mCRPC. Results: Increased cfDNA methylation in eight out of nine markers during androgen-targeted treatment correlated with a faster time to clinical progression. Cox proportional hazards modeling and logistic regression analysis further confirmed that higher cfDNA methylation during treatment was significantly associated with clinical progression. Conclusion: Overall, our findings have revealed a novel methylated cfDNA marker panel that could aid in the clinical management of metastatic prostate cancer.

Prenatal adversity alters the epigenetic profile of the prefrontal cortex: sexually dimorphic effects of prenatal alcohol exposure and food-related stress

Alexandre A Lussier, Tamara S Bodnar, Michelle Moksa, Martin Hirst, Michael S Kobor, Joanne Weinberg

Prenatal adversity or stress can have long-term consequences on developmental trajectories and health outcomes. Although the biological mechanisms underlying these effects are poorly understood, epigenetic modifications, such as DNA methylation, have the potential to link early-life environments to alterations in physiological systems, with long-term functional implications. We investigated the consequences of two prenatal insults, prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) and food-related stress, on DNA methylation profiles of the rat brain during early development. As these insults can have sex-specific effects on biological outcomes, we analyzed epigenome-wide DNA methylation patterns in prefrontal cortex, a key brain region involved in cognition, executive function, and behavior, of both males and females. We found sex-dependent and sex-concordant influences of these insults on epigenetic patterns. These alterations occurred in genes and pathways related to brain development and immune function, suggesting that PAE and food-related stress may reprogram neurobiological/physiological systems partly through central epigenetic changes, and may do so in a sex-dependent manner. Such epigenetic changes may reflect the sex-specific effects of prenatal insults on long-term functional and health outcomes and have important implications for understanding possible mechanisms underlying fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Stress hematopoiesis induces a proliferative advantage in TET2 deficiency

Vinothkumar Rajan, Keon Collett, Rachel Woodside, Sergey V Prykhozhij, Michelle Moksa, Annäick Carles, Marcus Wong, Mira Liebman, Martin Hirst, Jason N Berman

TET2 loss-of-function mutations are recurrent events in a wide range of hematological malignancies and a physiologic occurrence in blood cells of healthy older adults. It is currently unknown what determines if a person harboring a somatic TET2 mutation will progress to myelodysplastic syndrome or acute myeloid leukemia. Here we develop a zebrafish tet2 mutant through which we show that tet2 loss leads to restricted hematopoietic differentiation combined with a modest upregulation of p53, which is also characteristic of many inherited bone marrow failure syndromes. Uniquely in the context of emergency hematopoiesis by external stimuli, such as infection or cytokine stimulation, lack of tet2 leads hematopoietic stem cells to undergo excessive proliferation, resulting in an accumulation of immature cells, which are poised to become leukemogenic following additional genetic/epigenetic perturbations. This same phenomenon observed in zebrafish extends to human hematopoietic stem cells, identifying TET2 as a critical relay switch in the context of stress hematopoiesis.

CRIS: Complete Reconstruction of Immunoglobulin V-D-J Sequences from RNA-seq data

Bioinformatics Advances
Rashedul Islam, Misha Bilenky, Andrew P Weng, Joseph M Connors, Martin Hirst

Motivation: B-cells display remarkable diversity in producing B-cell receptors through recombination of immunoglobulin V-D-J genes. Somatic hypermutation of immunoglobulin heavy chain variable (IGHV) genes are used as a prognostic marker in B-cell malignancies. Clinically, IGHV mutation status is determined by targeted Sanger sequencing which is a resource intensive and low-throughput procedure. Here we describe a bioinformatic pipeline, CRIS (Complete Reconstruction of Immunoglobulin IGHV-D-JSequences) that uses RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) datasets to reconstruct IGHV-D-J sequences and determine IGHV somatic hypermutation status.

Results: CRIS extracts RNA-seq reads aligned to immunoglobulin gene (Ig) loci, performs assembly of Ig-transcripts and aligns the resulting contigs to reference Ig sequences to enumerate and classify somatic hypermutations in the IGHV gene sequence. CRIS improves on existing tools that infer the B-cell receptor (BCR) repertoire from RNA-seq data using a portion IGHV gene segment by de novo assembly. We show that the somatic hypermutation status identified by CRIS using the entire IGHV gene segment is highly concordant with clinical classification in three independent chronic lymphocytic leukemia patient cohorts.

Megabase-scale methylation phasing using nanopore long reads and NanoMethPhase

Genome Biology
Vahid Akbari, Jean-Michel Garant, Kieran O’Neill, Pawan Pandoh, Richard Moore, Marco A Marra, Martin Hirst, Steven JM Jones

The ability of nanopore sequencing to simultaneously detect modified nucleotides while producing long reads makes it ideal for detecting and phasing allele-specific methylation. However, there is currently no complete software for detecting SNPs, phasing haplotypes, and mapping methylation to these from nanopore sequence data. Here, we present NanoMethPhase, a software tool to phase 5-methylcytosine from nanopore sequencing. We also present SNVoter, which can post-process nanopore SNV calls to improve accuracy in low coverage regions. Together, these tools can accurately detect allele-specific methylation genome-wide using nanopore sequence data with low coverage of about ten-fold redundancy.

Butyrate Shapes Immune Cell Fate and Function in Allergic Asthma

Frontiers in Immunology
William Yip, Michael R Hughes, Yicong Li, Alissa Cait, Martin Hirst, William W Mohn, Kelly M McNagny

The microbiome plays a fundamental role in how the immune system develops and how inflammatory responses are shaped and regulated. The "gut-lung axis" is a relatively new term that highlights a crucial biological crosstalk between the intestinal microbiome and lung. A growing body of literature suggests that dysbiosis, perturbation of the gut microbiome, is a driving force behind the development, and severity of allergic asthma. Animal models have given researchers new insights into how gut microbe-derived components and metabolites, such as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), influence the development of asthma. While the full understanding of how SCFAs influence allergic airway disease remains obscure, a recurring theme of epigenetic regulation of gene expression in several immune cell compartments is emerging. This review will address our current understanding of how SCFAs, and specifically butyrate, orchestrates cell behavior, and epigenetic changes and will provide a detailed overview of the effects of these modifications on immune cells in the context of allergic airway disease.

Synthetic modeling reveals HOXB genes are critical for the initiation and maintenance of human leukemia.

Nature communications, 2019
Kusakabe, Manabu, Sun, Ann Chong, Tyshchenko, Kateryna, Wong, Rachel, Nanda, Aastha, Shanna, Claire, Gusscott, Samuel, Chavez, Elizabeth A, Lorzadeh, Alireza, Zhu, Alice, Hill, Ainsleigh, Hung, Stacy, Brown, Scott, Babaian, Artem, Wang, Xuehai, Holt, Robert A, Steidl, Christian, Karsan, Aly, Humphries, R Keith, Eaves, Connie J, Hirst, Martin, Weng, Andrew P
Mechanistic studies in human cancer have relied heavily on cell lines and mouse models, but are limited by in vitro adaptation and species context issues, respectively. More recent efforts have utilized patient-derived xenografts; however, these are hampered by variable genetic background, inability to study early events, and practical issues with availability/reproducibility. We report here an efficient, reproducible model of T-cell leukemia in which lentiviral transduction of normal human cord blood yields aggressive leukemia that appears indistinguishable from natural disease. We utilize this synthetic model to uncover a role for oncogene-induced HOXB activation which is operative in leukemia cells-of-origin and persists in established tumors where it defines a novel subset of patients distinct from other known genetic subtypes and with poor clinical outcome. We show further that anterior HOXB genes are specifically activated in human T-ALL by an epigenetic mechanism and confer growth advantage in both pre-leukemia cells and established clones.

Epigenetic Restoration of Fetal-like IGF1 Signaling Inhibits Leukemia Stem Cell Activity.

Cell stem cell, 2018
Giambra, Vincenzo, Gusscott, Samuel, Gracias, Deanne, Song, Raymond, Lam, Sonya H, Panelli, Patrizio, Tyshchenko, Kateryna, Jenkins, Catherine E, Hoofd, Catherine, Lorzadeh, Alireza, Carles, Annaick, Hirst, Martin, Eaves, Connie J, Weng, Andrew P
Acute leukemias are aggressive malignancies of developmentally arrested hematopoietic progenitors. We sought here to explore the possibility that changes in hematopoietic stem/progenitor cells during development might alter the biology of leukemias arising from this tissue compartment. Using a mouse model of acute T cell leukemia, we found that leukemias generated from fetal liver (FL) and adult bone marrow (BM) differed dramatically in their leukemia stem cell activity with FL leukemias showing markedly reduced serial transplantability as compared to BM leukemias. We present evidence that this difference is due to NOTCH1-driven autocrine IGF1 signaling, which is active in FL cells but restrained in BM cells by EZH2-dependent H3K27 trimethylation. Further, we confirmed this mechanism is operative in human disease and show that enforced IGF1 signaling effectively limits leukemia stem cell activity. These findings demonstrate that resurrecting dormant fetal programs in adult cells may represent an alternate therapeutic approach in human cancer.

RUNX1 promotes cell growth in human T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia by transcriptional regulation of key target genes.

Experimental hematology, 2018
Jenkins, Catherine E, Gusscott, Samuel, Wong, Rachel J, Shevchuk, Olena O, Rana, Gurneet, Giambra, Vincenzo, Tyshchenko, Kateryna, Islam, Rashedul, Hirst, Martin, Weng, Andrew P
RUNX1 is frequently mutated in T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL). The spectrum of RUNX1 mutations has led to the notion that it acts as a tumor suppressor in this context; however, other studies have placed RUNX1, along with transcription factors TAL1 and NOTCH1, as core drivers of an oncogenic transcriptional program. To reconcile these divergent roles, we knocked down RUNX1 in human T-ALL cell lines and deleted Runx1 or Cbfb in primary mouse T-cell leukemias. RUNX1 depletion consistently resulted in reduced cell proliferation and increased apoptosis. RUNX1 upregulated variable sets of target genes in each cell line, but consistently included a core set of oncogenic effectors including insulin-like growth factor 1 receptor (IGF1R) and NRAS. Our results support the conclusion that RUNX1 has a net positive effect on cell growth in the context of established T-ALL.

High-Resolution Single-Cell DNA Methylation Measurements Reveal Epigenetically Distinct Hematopoietic Stem Cell Subpopulations.

Stem cell reports, 2018
Hui, Tony, Cao, Qi, Wegrzyn-Woltosz, Joanna, O'Neill, Kieran, Hammond, Colin A, Knapp, David J H F, Laks, Emma, Moksa, Michelle, Aparicio, Samuel, Eaves, Connie J, Karsan, Aly, Hirst, Martin
Increasing evidence of functional and transcriptional heterogeneity in phenotypically similar cells examined individually has prompted interest in obtaining parallel methylome data. We describe the development and application of such a protocol to index-sorted murine and human hematopoietic cells that are highly enriched in their content of functionally defined stem cells. Utilizing an optimized single-cell bisulfite sequencing protocol, we obtained quantitative DNA methylation measurements of up to 5.7 million CpGs in single hematopoietic cells. In parallel, we developed an analytical strategy (PDclust) to define single-cell DNA methylation states through pairwise comparisons of single-CpG methylation measurements. PDclust revealed that a single-cell epigenetic state can be described by a small (<1%) stochastically sampled fraction of CpGs and that these states are reflective of cell identity and state. Using relationships revealed by PDclust, we derive near complete methylomes for epigenetically distinct subpopulations of hematopoietic cells enriched for functional stem cell content.

Prenatal Alcohol Exposure: Profiling Developmental DNA Methylation Patterns in Central and Peripheral Tissues.

Frontiers in genetics, 2018
Lussier, Alexandre A, Bodnar, Tamara S, Mingay, Matthew, Morin, Alexandre M, Hirst, Martin, Kobor, Michael S, Weinberg, Joanne
Prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) can alter the development of neurobiological systems, leading to lasting neuroendocrine, neuroimmune, and neurobehavioral deficits. Although the etiology of this reprogramming remains unknown, emerging evidence suggests DNA methylation as a potential mediator and biomarker for the effects of PAE due to its responsiveness to environmental cues and relative stability over time. Here, we utilized a rat model of PAE to examine the DNA methylation profiles of rat hypothalami and leukocytes at four time points during early development to assess the genome-wide impact of PAE on the epigenome and identify potential biomarkers of PAE. Our model of PAE resulted in blood alcohol levels of ~80-150 mg/dl throughout the equivalent of the first two trimesters of human pregnancy. Hypothalami were analyzed on postnatal days (P) 1, 8, 15, 22 and leukocytes at P22 to compare central and peripheral markers. Genome-wide DNA methylation analysis was performed by methylated DNA immunoprecipitation followed by next-generation sequencing. PAE resulted in lasting changes to DNA methylation profiles across all four ages, with 118 differentially methylated regions (DMRs) displaying persistent alterations across the developmental period at a false-discovery rate (FDR) < 0.05. In addition, 299 DMRs showed the same direction of change in the hypothalamus and leukocytes of P22 pups at an FDR < 0.05, with some genes overlapping with the developmental profile findings. The majority of these DMRs were located in intergenic regions, which contained several computationally-predicted transcription factor binding sites. Differentially methylated genes were generally involved in immune function, epigenetic remodeling, metabolism, and hormonal signaling, as determined by gene ontology analyses. Persistent DNA methylation changes in the hypothalamus may be associated with the long-term physiological and neurobehavioral alterations in observed in PAE. Furthermore, correlations between epigenetic alterations in peripheral tissues and those in the brain will provide a foundation for the development of biomarkers of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Finally, findings from studies of PAE provide important insight into the etiology of neurodevelopmental and mental health disorders, as they share numerous phenotypes and comorbidities.

Generation of Native Chromatin Immunoprecipitation Sequencing Libraries for Nucleosome Density Analysis.

Journal of visualized experiments : JoVE, 2017
Lorzadeh, Alireza, Lopez Gutierrez, Rodrigo, Jackson, Linda, Moksa, Michelle, Hirst, Martin
We present a modified native chromatin immunoprecipitation sequencing (ChIP-seq) experimental protocol compatible with a Gaussian mixture distribution based analysis methodology (nucleosome density ChIP-seq; ndChIP-seq) that enables the generation of combined measurements of micrococcal nuclease (MNase) accessibility with histone modification genome-wide. Nucleosome position and local density, and the posttranslational modification of their histone subunits, act in concert to regulate local transcription states. Combinatorial measurements of nucleosome accessibility with histone modification generated by ndChIP-seq allows for the simultaneous interrogation of these features. The ndChIP-seq methodology is applicable to small numbers of primary cells inaccessible to cross-linking based ChIP-seq protocols. Taken together, ndChIP-seq enables the measurement of histone modification in combination with local nucleosome density to obtain new insights into shared mechanisms that regulate RNA transcription within rare primary cell populations.

Fate mapping of human glioblastoma reveals an invariant stem cell hierarchy.

Nature, 2017
Lan, Xiaoyang, Jörg, David J, Cavalli, Florence M G, Richards, Laura M, Nguyen, Long V, Vanner, Robert J, Guilhamon, Paul, Lee, Lilian, Kushida, Michelle M, Pellacani, Davide, Park, Nicole I, Coutinho, Fiona J, Whetstone, Heather, Selvadurai, Hayden J, Che, Clare, Luu, Betty, Carles, Annaick, Moksa, Michelle, Rastegar, Naghmeh, Head, Renee, Dolma, Sonam, Prinos, Panagiotis, Cusimano, Michael D, Das, Sunit, Bernstein, Mark, Arrowsmith, Cheryl H, Mungall, Andrew J, Moore, Richard A, Ma, Yussanne, Gallo, Marco, Lupien, Mathieu, Pugh, Trevor J, Taylor, Michael D, Hirst, Martin, Eaves, Connie J, Simons, Benjamin D, Dirks, Peter B
Human glioblastomas harbour a subpopulation of glioblastoma stem cells that drive tumorigenesis. However, the origin of intratumoural functional heterogeneity between glioblastoma cells remains poorly understood. Here we study the clonal evolution of barcoded glioblastoma cells in an unbiased way following serial xenotransplantation to define their individual fate behaviours. Independent of an evolving mutational signature, we show that the growth of glioblastoma clones in vivo is consistent with a remarkably neutral process involving a conserved proliferative hierarchy rooted in glioblastoma stem cells. In this model, slow-cycling stem-like cells give rise to a more rapidly cycling progenitor population with extensive self-maintenance capacity, which in turn generates non-proliferative cells. We also identify rare 'outlier' clones that deviate from these dynamics, and further show that chemotherapy facilitates the expansion of pre-existing drug-resistant glioblastoma stem cells. Finally, we show that functionally distinct glioblastoma stem cells can be separately targeted using epigenetic compounds, suggesting new avenues for glioblastoma-targeted therapy.
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