The role of DNA methylation in Huntington’s disease

2015 Pilot Project Read More


Principal Investigator:  Hiroko Yano (WashU Neurosurgery)
Collaborator: Ting Wang (WashU Genetics)


Our long-term goal is to discover therapeutic strategies targeting abnormal gene regulation causing neuronal dysfunction and death in Huntington’s disease (HD), a progressive and fatal neurodegenerative disease with no cure to date.  Early in the course of disease progression, brains of HD patients and mice show abnormal gene expression, which is thought to play a critical role in disease pathogenesis.  Recent studies using disease models have identified extensive changes in several chromatin modifications, including aberrant DNA methylation and histone modifications, which can alter gene expression and potentially contribute to HD pathogenesis. However, we still do not know which chromatin modifications play a dominant and causal role in neurodegeneration in HD, which has significant implications for therapy development.  Based on our preliminary results demonstrating the important role of DNA methylation pathways in the death of HD neurons in culture, we hypothesize that the mutant HD protein triggers aberrant DNA methylation, thereby causing dysregulation of genes important for neuronal survival; therefore, DNA methylation pathways can be therapeutically manipulated to restore normal gene expression and protect neurons from HD-mediated neuronal death.  The objective of this project is to determine how manipulation of DNA methylation pathways causes neuroprotection.  Successful completion of these studies will advance our molecular understanding of gene regulation in HD neurons and lead to the development of new therapeutic strategies to halt disease progression in HD and, potentially, in other progressive neurodegenerative diseases in which aberrant DNA methylation plays a role.

Grants and Awards

“Epigenetic therapy for Huntington’s disease”
Spring 2018 LEAP Inventor Challenge Award, Washington University in St. Louis (PI, Hiroko Yano)
Our goal is to develop an effective neuroprotective therapy that targets a newly discovered and critical epigenetic mechanism—DNA methylation—in Huntington’s disease (HD). Our therapeutic target is the family of DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs), enzymes that catalyze methylation of DNA and thereby regulate gene expression. In this project, we test brain bioavailability and pharmacokinetics of systemically administered DNMT inhibitors in mice and identify a treatment with favorable pharmacological properties.

“Role of DNA methyltransferases in Huntington’s disease pathogenesis”
FY19 Small Grants Program from McDonnell Center for Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, Washington University in St. Louis (PI, Hiroko Yano)
The goal of this project is to identify the role of DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs), DNMT1 and DNMT3A, in neurodegeneration and disease progression in Huntington’s disease in vivo by ablation of DNMT genes in HD mice through genetic cross of DNMT conditional knockout mice with HD mouse models.

“Epigenetic and mRNA Profiling of Striatopallidal Neurons in Huntington’s Disease”
NIH/NINDS R21 NS096603  (PI, Yano)
The goal of this project is to identify critical epigenetic changes causing abnormal gene regulation and neurodegeneration in vivo in striatopallidal medium spiny neurons, the primary cell type at-risk in Huntington’s disease.

“Role of DNA methyltransferases in Huntington’s Disease”
NIH/NINDS R01 NS111014 – 01A1 (PI, Yano)
NIH/NINDS 5R01NS111014-02 (PI, Yano)
Public Health Relevance Statement, NARRATIVE: Huntington’s disease (HD) is a fatal neurodegenerative disease caused by a known genetic mutation, but how this mutation causes neurological symptoms as well as the dysfunction and death of specific neurons remains unclear. Here we will test the hypothesis that an abnormality in a critical epigenetic mechanism involving DNA methyltransferases contributes to HD pathogenesis. This study will identify a novel epigenetic mechanism driving HD neurodegeneration. The findings will lay the foundation for the development of novel therapies that target DNA methyltransferases in HD and potentially other neurodegenerative diseases.

Intellectual Property

“Methods of treating neurodegenerative disorders comprising DNA methyltransferase inhibitors.”

PCT/US2017/037276 with international rights filed: 6/13/2017
Patent application (WO2017218551A1) published: 12/21/2017
US 10842807B2 (Yano H and Kim A)
Patent granted: November 24, 2020


Pan Y, Daito T, Sasaki Y, Chung YH, Xing X, Pondugula S, Swamidass, SJ, Wang T, Kim AH, Yano H.  “Inhibition of DNA methyltransferases blocks mutant huntingtin-induced neurotoxicity”. Sci Rep.;6:31022, (2016).

Pan Y, Zhu Y, Yang W, Tycksen E, Liu S, Palucki J, Zhu L, Sasaki Yo, Sharma MK, Kim AH, Zhang B, and Yano H. “The role of Twist1 in mutant huntingtin-induced transcriptional alterations and neurotoxicity”. J Biol Chem 2018, 293(30):11850-11866.


Updated April 2021


Pilot project teams include Hope Center faculty members and others. For more about Hope Center faculty on this team, click below.

Hiroko Yano


This pilot project is made possible by the Danforth Foundation Challenge, and The Hope Center Program on Protein Aggregation and Neurodegeneration (HPAN).

Danforth Challenge