Histone deacetylases: unique players in shaping the epigenetic histone code

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2003 Mar;983:84-100. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2003.tb05964.x.


The epigenome is defined by DNA methylation patterns and the associated posttranslational modifications of histones. This histone code determines the expression status of individual genes dependent upon their localization on the chromatin. The silencing of gene expression is associated with deacetylated histones, which are often found to be associated with regions of DNA methylation as well as methylation at the lysine 4 residue of histone 3. In contrast, the activation of gene expression is associated with acetylated histones and methylation at the lysine 9 residue of histone 3. The histone deactylases play a major role in keeping the balance between the acetylated and deacetylated states of chromatin. Histone deacetylases (HDACs) are divided into three classes: class I HDACs (HDACs 1, 2, 3, and 8) are similar to the yeast RPD3 protein and localize to the nucleus; class II HDACs (HDACs 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 10) are homologous to the yeast HDA1 protein and are found in both the nucleus and cytoplasm; and class III HDACs form a structurally distinct class of NAD-dependent enzymes that are similar to the yeast SIR2 proteins. Since inappropriate silencing of critical genes can result in one or both hits of tumor suppressor gene (TSG) inactivation in cancer, theoretically the reactivation of affected TSGs could have an enormous therapeutic value in preventing and treating cancer. Indeed, several HDAC inhibitors are currently being developed and tested for their potency in cancer chemotherapy. Importantly, these agents are also potentially applicable to chemoprevention if their toxicity can be minimized. Despite the toxic side effects and lack of specificity of some of the inhibitors, progress is being made. With the elucidation of the structures, functions and modes of action of HDACs, finding agents that may be targeted to specific HDACs and potentially reactivate expression of only a defined set of affected genes in cancer will be more attainable.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetylation
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / pharmacology
  • Enzyme Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Enzyme Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Histone Deacetylase Inhibitors
  • Histone Deacetylases / metabolism*
  • Histones / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control


  • Anticarcinogenic Agents
  • Enzyme Inhibitors
  • Histone Deacetylase Inhibitors
  • Histones
  • Histone Deacetylases