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DNA methylation in cancer: too much, but also too little

Abstract

Cancer-associated DNA hypomethylation is as prevalent as cancer-linked hypermethylation, but these two types of epigenetic abnormalities usually seem to affect different DNA sequences. Much more of the genome is generally subject to undermethylation rather than overmethylation. Genomic hypermethylation in cancer has been observed most often in CpG islands in gene regions. In contrast, very frequent hypomethylation is seen in both highly and moderately repeated DNA sequences in cancer, including heterochromatic DNA repeats, dispersed retrotransposons, and endogenous retroviral elements. Also, unique sequences, including transcription control sequences, are often subject to cancer-associated undermethylation. The high frequency of cancer-linked DNA hypomethylation, the nature of the affected sequences, and the absence of associations with DNA hypermethylation are consistent with an independent role for DNA undermethylation in cancer formation or tumor progression. Increased karyotypic instability and activation of tumor-promoting genes by cis or trans effects, that might include altered heterochromatin-euchromatin interactions, may be important consequences of DNA hypomethylation which favor oncogenesis. The relationship of DNA hypomethylation to tumorigenesis is important to be considered in the light of cancer therapies involving decreasing DNA methylation. Inducing DNA hypomethylation may have short-term anticancer effects, but might also help speed tumor progression from cancer cells surviving the DNA demethylation chemotherapy.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported in part by NIH Grant CA81506. I thank Drs Karim Malik and Anthony Reeves for critical reading of the section on imprinted genes.

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Correspondence to Melanie Ehrlich.

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Ehrlich, M. DNA methylation in cancer: too much, but also too little. Oncogene 21, 5400–5413 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.onc.1205651

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Keywords

  • DNA methylation
  • cancer
  • satellite DNA
  • LINE-1
  • imprinting
  • MAGE genes

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