Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD) liver disease is characterized by marked heterogeneity in presentation and progression, despite a common underlying gene mutation, strongly suggesting the involvement of other genetic and/or epigenetic modifiers. Variation in clinical phenotype has added to the challenge of detection, diagnosis, and testing of new therapies in patients with AATD. We examined the contribution of DNA methylation (5-methylcytosine [5mC]) to AATD liver disease heterogeneity because 5mC responds to environmental and genetic cues and its deregulation is a major driver of liver disease. Using liver biopsies from adults with early-stage AATD and the ZZ genotype, genome-wide 5mC patterns were interrogated. We compared DNA methylation among patients with early AATD, and among patients with normal liver, cirrhosis, and hepatocellular carcinoma derived from multiple etiologic exposures, and linked patient clinical/demographic features. Global analysis revealed significant genomic hypomethylation in AATD liver–impacting genes related to liver cancer, cell cycle, and fibrosis, as well as key regulatory molecules influencing growth, migration, and immune function. Further analysis indicated that 5mC changes are localized, with hypermethylation occurring within a background of genome-wide 5mC loss and with patients with AATD manifesting distinct epigenetic landscapes despite their mutational homogeneity. By integrating clinical data with 5mC landscapes, we observed that CpGs differentially methylated among patients with AATD disease are linked to hallmark clinical features of AATD (e.g., hepatocyte degeneration and polymer accumulation) and further reveal links to well-known sex-specific effects of liver disease progression. Conclusion: Our data reveal molecular epigenetic signatures within this mutationally homogeneous group that point to ways to stratify patients for liver disease risk.
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