Epigenetic modification of chromatin in erythroid cells represents an active field of study aimed, in part, toward increased expression of fetal hemoglobin in patients with beta-thalassemia. The homologous methyltransferases G9a and GLP regulate globin gene transcription by catalyzing mono- and dimethylation at Lys 9 and dimethylation at Lys 27 of histone H3. Inhibition of these methyltransferases by the small molecule named UNC0638 was recently shown to increase gamma-globin gene expression in adult human hematopoietic precursor and stem cells. Here UNC0638 was explored further to include fetal hemoglobin expression among more mature erythroid cells cultured from CD34(+) cells of three healthy adult human donors in a serum-free culture medium. According to this culture model, the main erythroblast population on culture days 0-7 consists of CD36(+), CD45(+), CD71(moderate), CD235a(-) erythroid progenitor cell. On culture days 7-14, the progenitor cells differentiate in the presence of erythropoietin to become CD36(+), CD45(-), CD71(high), CD235a(+) precursor cells. During the final week in culture, the erythroblasts undergo nuclear condensation, enucleation, and loss of RNA combined with the loss of CD36 and CD71 on the plasma membrane to become mature erythrocytes. To investigate different stages of erythroblast maturation, the cells were cultured in medium containing 1µM UNC0638 for periods of seven days (culture days 0-7, 7-14, or 14-21) and compared to control cultures without UNC0638. The effects of UNC0638 were determined by flow cytometry, Q-RT-PCR and hemoglobin chromatography (HPLC).

Unexpectedly, fetal hemoglobin expression was highly-dependent upon the differentiation stage of the cells in the presence of UNC0638. When cultured in UNC0638 supplemented medium on culture days 0-7 or 14-21, the cells underwent terminal maturation, but there was no significant increase in the fetal hemoglobin content of the mature cells (see abstract figure). In contrast, UNC0638 added on culture days 7-14, caused a significant increase in fetal hemoglobin (HbF; control: 3.9 ± 3.5% vs. day 7-14 UNC0638: 32.6 ± 0.95%, p=0.007). The increase in HbF was associated with a similar increase in gamma-globin mRNA (control: 1.5E+06 ± 1.7E+05 copies/ng vs. day 7-14 UNC0638: 7.5E+06 ± 1.4E+06 copies/ng, p=0.021). Additionally, terminal maturation and enucleation were partially inhibited when compared to the other conditions or controls.

These data suggest that UNC0638 causes a robust increase in fetal hemoglobin as the cells undergo maturation. Fetal hemoglobin increases were more pronounced after exposure to UNC0638 during the erythropoietin-dependent transition from CD235a(-) to CD235a(+) erythroblasts. The results suggest that fetal hemoglobin regulation by G9a and GLP may be differentiation stage dependent.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.