Background: Mechanisms underlying the development of virus-induced asthma exacerbations remain unclear. To investigate if epigenetic mechanisms could be involved in virus-induced asthma exacerbations, we undertook DNA methylation profiling in asthmatic and healthy nasal epithelial cells (NECs) during Human Rhinovirus (HRV) infection in vitro. Methods. Global and loci-specific methylation profiles were determined via Alu element and Infinium Human Methylation 450 K microarray, respectively. Principal components analysis identified the genomic loci influenced the most by disease-status and infection. Real-time PCR and pyrosequencing were used to confirm gene expression and DNA methylation, respectively. Results: HRV infection significantly increased global DNA methylation in cells from asthmatic subjects only (43.6% to 44.1%, p = 0.04). Microarray analysis revealed 389 differentially methylated loci either based on disease status, or caused by virus infection. There were disease-associated DNA methylation patterns that were not affected by HRV infection as well as HRV-induced DNA methylation changes that were unique to each group. A common methylation locus stood out in response to HRV infection in both groups, where the small nucleolar RNA, H/ACA box 12 (SNORA12) is located. Further analysis indicated that a relationship existed between SNORA12 DNA methylation and gene expression in response to HRV infection. Conclusions: We describe for the first time that Human rhinovirus infection causes DNA methylation changes in airway epithelial cells that differ between asthmatic and healthy subjects. These epigenetic differences may possibly explain the mechanism by which respiratory viruses cause asthma exacerbations.
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