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Wenk, Catharina; Garz, Anne-Kathrin; Grath, Sonja; Huberle, Christina; Witham, Denis; Weickert, Marie; Malinverni, Roberto; Niggemeyer, Julia; Kyncl, Michele; Hecker, Judith; Pagel, Charlotta; Mulholland, Christopher B.; Müller-Thomas, Catharina; Leonhardt, Heinrich; Bassermann, Florian; Oostendorp, Robert A. J.; Metzeler, Klaus H.; Buschbeck, Marcus and Götze, Katharina S. (2018): Direct modulation of the bone marrow mesenchymal stromal cell compartment by azacitidine enhances healthy hematopoiesis. In: Blood Advances, Vol. 2, No. 23: pp. 3447-3461

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Mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) are crucial components of the bone marrow (BM) microenvironment essential for regulating self-renewal, survival, and differentiation of hematopoietic stem/progenitor cells (HSPCs) in the stem cell niche. MSCs are functionally altered in myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) and exhibit an altered methylome compared with MSCs from healthy controls, thus contributing to disease progression. To determine whether MSCs are amenable to epigenetic therapy and if this affects their function, we examined growth, differentiation, and HSPC-supporting capacity of ex vivo-expanded MSCs from MDS patients in comparison with age-matched healthy controls after direct treatment in vitro with the hypomethylating agent azacitidine (AZA). Strikingly, we find that AZA exerts a direct effect on healthy as well as MDS-derived MSCs such that they favor support of healthy over malignant clonal HSPC expansion in coculture experiments. RNA-sequencing analyses of MSCs identified stromal networks regulated by AZA. Notably, these comprise distinct molecular pathways crucial for HSPC support, foremost extracellular matrix molecules (including collagens) and interferon pathway components. Our study demonstrates that the hypomethylating agent AZA exerts its antileukemic activity in part through a direct effect on the HSPC-supporting BM niche and provides proof of concept for the therapeutic potential of epigenetic treatment of diseased MSCs. In addition, our comprehensive data set of AZA-sensitive gene networks represents a valuable framework to guide future development of targeted epigenetic niche therapy in myeloid malignancies such as MDS and acute myeloid leukemia.

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