Epigenetic silencing and position dependent expression are long-standing problems which continue to limit the development of gene replacement therapy. As a strategy to overcome this problem we have tested the ability of the human XIST (X inactivation-specific transcript) gene promoter to overcome epigenetic silencing. The XIST gene is one of a relatively small number of genes which are expressed from the inactive X chromosome. The product of this gene is an untranslated structural RNA which coats the X chromosome destined for inactivation prior to H3 Lys 9 hypoacetylation, H3 Lys 9 methylation, CpG island methylation and the subsequent silencing of most of the genes on the chromosome. Continued expression of the XIST gene in this highly repressive environment is required to maintain the chromosome in an inactive state. The region of the proximal promoter of the XIST gene on the inactive X chromosome has been shown to retain an active chromatin structure. Based on these findings we hypothesized that the XIST gene promoter would be able to resist the epigenetic changes which lead to transgene silencing. To test this idea, we subcloned a minimal XIST promoter upstream of an enhanced GFP reporter gene in a pUC-based plasmid which also contained a neomycin resistance gene. The same plasmid, with a CMV promoter, served as a control vector. The plasmids were electroporated into mouse erythroleukemia (MEL) cells and then grown in media containing G418. The MEL cell line was chosen because genes transferred into these cells are frequently silenced and because it is often used as a first screen for vectors with potential for use in therapeutic gene transfer to erythroid cells. Individual colonies were selected and G418 removed. After expansion of the clones, flow cytometry was used to determine the percentage of cells in each clonal population which were expressing GFP as determined by comparison to the untransduced MEL cell line. Silencing typically involves a gradual decrease in the proportion of cells expressing the integrated transgene. Statistical analyses of results were performed using the t-test. 16 XIST and 13 CMV clones were available for analysis at the start of the experiment (time 0). 11/13 CMV clones and 12/16 XIST clones initially expressed GFP. Of the clones which were expressing GFP, the average percentages of positive cells were higher for those with the XIST promoter (63% vs. 41%, p= 0.015). Expression was reanalyzed after 6 weeks of culture in the absence of G418 selection. At this time point, the average percentage of GFP expressing cells was much higher for the XIST clones (57% vs. 19%, p=0.00008) and when analyzed for silencing, XIST clones were expressing at an average of 90% of their time 0 levels vs. 46% for the CMV clones (p=.0008). These results indicate that the XIST promoter is resistant to silencing in our model system and is a candidate for further development and mechanistic studies.

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