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Identification of human glucocorticoid response markers using integrated multi-omic analysis from a randomized crossover trial

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Brian WalkerORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


© 2021, Chantzichristos et al.Background: Glucocorticoids are among the most commonly prescribed drugs, but there is no biomarker that can quantify their action. The aim of the study was to identify and validate circulating biomarkers of glucocorticoid action. Methods: In a randomized, crossover, single-blind, discovery study, 10 subjects with primary adrenal insufficiency (and no other endocrinopathies) were admitted at the in-patient clinic and studied during physiological glucocorticoid exposure and withdrawal. A randomization plan before the first intervention was used. Besides mild physical and/or mental fatigue and salt craving, no serious adverse events were observed. The transcriptome in peripheral blood mononuclear cells and adipose tissue, plasma miRNAomic, and serum metabolomics were compared between the interventions using integrated multi-omic analysis. Results: We identified a transcriptomic profile derived from two tissues and a multi-omic cluster, both predictive of glucocorticoid exposure. A microRNA (miR-122-5p) that was correlated with genes and metabolites regulated by glucocorticoid exposure was identified (p=0.009) and replicated in independent studies with varying glucocorticoid exposure (0.01 ≤ p≤0.05). Conclusions: We have generated results that construct the basis for successful discovery of biomarker(s) to measure effects of glucocorticoids, allowing strategies to individualize and optimize glucocorticoid therapy, and shedding light on disease etiology related to unphysiological glucocorticoid exposure, such as in cardiovascular disease and obesity. Funding: The Swedish Research Council (Grant 2015-02561 and 2019-01112); The Swedish federal government under the LUA/ALF agreement (Grant ALFGBG-719531); The Swedish Endocrinology Association; The Gothenburg Medical Society; Wellcome Trust; The Medical Research Council, UK; The Chief Scientist Office, UK; The Eva Madura's Foundation; The Research Foundation of Copenhagen University Hospital; and The Danish Rheumatism Association. Clinical trial number: NCT02152553.Several diseases, including asthma, arthritis, some skin conditions, and cancer, are treated with medications called glucocorticoids, which are synthetic versions of human hormones. These drugs are also used to treat people with a condition call adrenal insufficiency who do not produce enough of an important hormone called cortisol. Use of glucocorticoids is very common, the proportion of people in a given country taking them can range from 0.5% to 21% of the population depending on the duration of the treatment. But, like any medication, glucocorticoids have both benefits and risks: people who take glucocorticoids for a long time have an increased risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and death. Because of the risks associated with taking glucocorticoids, it is very important for physicians to tailor the dose to each patient’s needs. Doing this can be tricky, because the levels of glucocorticoids in a patient’s blood are not a good indicator of the medication’s activity in the body. A test that can accurately measure the glucocorticoid activity could help physicians personalize treatment and reduce harmful side effects. As a first step towards developing such a test, Chantzichristos et al. identified a potential way to measure glucocorticoid activity in patient’s blood. In the experiments, blood samples were collected from ten patients with adrenal insufficiency both when they were on no medication, and when they were taking a glucocorticoid to replace their missing hormones. Next, the blood samples were analyzed to determine which genes were turned on and off in each patient with and without the medication. They also compared small molecules in the blood called metabolites and tiny pieces of genetic material called microRNAs that turn genes on and off. The experiments revealed networks of genes, metabolites, and microRNAs that are associated with glucocorticoid activity, and one microRNA called miR-122-5p stood out as a potential way to measure glucocorticoid activity. To verify this microRNA’s usefulness, Chantzichristos et al. looked at levels of miR-122-5p in people participating in three other studies and confirmed that it was a good indicator of the glucocorticoid activity. More research is needed to confirm Chantzichristos et al.’s findings and to develop a test that can be used by physicians to measure glucocorticoid activity. The microRNA identified, miR-122-5p, has been previously linked to diabetes, so studying it further may also help scientists understand how taking glucocorticoids may increase the risk of developing diabetes and related diseases.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Chantzichristos D, Svensson P-A, Garner T, Glad CA, Walker BR, Bergthorsdottir R, Ragnarsson O, Trimpou P, Stimson RH, Borresen SW, Feldt-Rasmussen U, Jansson P-A, Skrtic S, Stevens A, Johannsson G

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: eLife

Year: 2021

Volume: 10

Online publication date: 06/04/2021

Acceptance date: 25/02/2021

Date deposited: 27/04/2021

ISSN (electronic): 2050-084X

Publisher: eLife Sciences Publications Ltd.


DOI: 10.7554/eLife.62236

PubMed id: 33821793


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