Foxp3+ T-regulatory cells require DNA methyltransferase 1 expression to prevent development of lethal autoimmunity

Liqing Wang, Yujie Liu, Ulf H. Beier, Rongxiang Han, Tricia R. Bhatti, Tatiana Akimova and Wayne W. Hancock

Key points

  • Foxp3 expression is increased by DNMT inhibitors and may have potential utility in efforts to develop Foxp3+ Tregs for cellular therapy

  • DNMT1 deletion impairs Treg function and results in lethal autoimmunity, such that use of DNMT inhibitors may warrant careful consideration


Protocols to use Foxp3+ T-regulatory (Treg) cells for cellular therapy, especially post-allogeneic stem cell transplantation, are currently being developed and tested by various groups. Inhibitors of DNA methyltransferase (Dnmt) enzymes have been advocated as a means to promote and stabilize Foxp3 expression in Tregs undergoing expansion in vitro, prior to their injection in vivo. We investigated the effects of conditionally deleting two Dnmt enzymes that co-immunoprecipitated with Foxp3 in Treg isolates. Deletion of Dnmt1, but not Dnmt3a, decreased the numbers and function of peripheral Tregs, and impaired conversion of conventional T cells into Foxp3+ Tregs under polarizing conditions. Importantly, mice with conditional deletion of Dnmt1 in their Tregs died from autoimmunity by 3-4 weeks of age unless rescued by perinatal transfer of wild-type Tregs. Conditional Dnmt1 deletion did not affect methylation of CpG-sites within Foxp3, but decreased global DNA methylation and altered Treg expression of several hundred pro-inflammatory and other genes. Hence, Dnmt1 is necessary for maintenance of the core gene program underlying Treg development and function, and its deletion within the Treg lineage leads to lethal autoimmunity. These data suggest that caution may be warranted when considering the use of DNMT inhibitors in development of Treg-based cellular therapies.

  • Submitted August 23, 2012.
  • Accepted February 19, 2013.