Enhanced Enhancers

The recent discovery of super-enhancers may offer new drug targets for a range of diseases.

By | November 1, 2014

© MARTIN MCCARTHY/ISTOCKPHOTO.COMTo understand disease processes, scientists often focus on unraveling how gene expression in disease-associated cells is altered. Increases or decreases in transcription—as dictated by a regulatory stretch of DNA called an enhancer, which serves as a binding site for transcription factors and associated proteins—can produce an aberrant composition of proteins, metabolites, and signaling molecules that drives pathologic states. Identifying the root causes of these changes may lead to new therapeutic approaches for many different diseases.  

Although few therapies for human diseases aim to alter gene expression, the outstanding examples—including antiestrogens for hormone-positive breast cancer, antiandrogens for prostate cancer, and PPAR-γ agonists for type 2 diabetes—demonstrate the benefits that can be achieved through targeting gene-control mechanisms.  Now, thanks to recent papers from laboratories at MIT, Harvard, and the National Institutes of Health, researchers have a new, much bigger transcriptional target: large DNA regions known as super-enhancers or stretch-enhancers. Already, work on super-enhancers is providing insights into how gene-expression programs are established and maintained, and how they may go awry in disease.  Such research promises to open new avenues for discovering medicines for diseases where novel approaches are sorely needed.  

Super-enhancers cover stretches of DNA that are 10- to 100-fold longer and about 10-fold less abundant in the genome than typical enhancer regions (Cell, 153:307-19, 2013). They also appear to bind a large percentage of the transcriptional machinery compared to typical enhancers, allowing them to better establish and enforce cell-type specific transcriptional programs (Cell, 153:320-34, 2013).

Super-enhancers are closely associated with genes that dictate cell identity, including those for cell-type–specific master regulatory transcription factors. This observation led to the intriguing hypothesis that cells with a pathologic identity, such as cancer cells, have an altered gene expression program driven by the loss, gain, or altered function of super-enhancers. Sure enough, by mapping the genome-wide location of super-enhancers in several cancer cell lines and from patients’ tumor cells, we and others have demonstrated that genes located near super-enhancers are involved in processes that underlie tumorigenesis, such as cell proliferation, signaling, and apoptosis.

Super-enhancers cover stretches of DNA that are 10- to 100-fold longer and about 10-fold less abundant in the genome than typical enhancer regions.

Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have found that disease- and trait-associated genetic variants often occur in greater numbers in super-enhancers (compared to typical enhancers) in cell types involved in the disease or trait of interest (Cell, 155:934-47, 2013). For example, an enrichment of fasting glucose–associated single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) was found in the stretch-enhancers of pancreatic islet cells (PNAS, 110:17921-26, 2013). Given that some 90 percent of reported disease-associated SNPs are located in noncoding regions, super-enhancer maps may be extremely valuable in assigning functional significance to GWAS variants and identifying target pathways.  

Because only 1 to 2 percent of active genes are physically linked to a super-enhancer, mapping the locations of super-enhancers can be used to pinpoint the small number of genes that may drive the biology of that cell. Differential super-enhancer maps that compare normal cells to diseased cells can be used to unravel the gene-control circuitry and identify new molecular targets, in much the same way that somatic mutations in tumor cells can point to oncogenic drivers in cancer. This approach is especially attractive in diseases for which an incomplete understanding of the pathogenic mechanisms has been a barrier to discovering effective new therapies.  

Another therapeutic approach could be to disrupt the formation or function of super-enhancers by interfering with their associated protein components. This strategy could make it possible to downregulate multiple disease-associated genes through a single molecular intervention. A group of Boston-area researchers recently published support for this concept when they described inhibited expression of cancer-specific genes, leading to a decrease in cancer cell growth, by using a small molecule inhibitor to knock down a super-enhancer component called BRD4 (Cancer Cell, 24:777-90, 2013).  More recently, another group showed that expression of the RUNX1 transcription factor, involved in a form of T-cell leukemia, can be diminished by treating cells with an inhibitor of a transcriptional kinase that is present at the RUNX1 super-enhancer (Nature, 511:616-20, 2014).

At Syros Pharmaceuticals, these new insights are guiding our approaches for treating acute myeloid leukemia and breast cancer, as well as our development of a transcriptional kinase inhibitor that may be suitable for multiple cancers. As researchers continue to generate super-enhancer maps and provide more insights into how these master regulators work, additional promising disease targets will emerge. 

Eric Olson is the chief scientific officer at Syros Pharmaceuticals, a therapeutics company harnessing breakthroughs in gene control to discover and develop drugs to treat cancer and other diseases.

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