Inhibitors of DNA methylation in the treatment of hematological malignancies and MDS

Clin Immunol. 2003 Oct;109(1):89-102. doi: 10.1016/s1521-6616(03)00207-9.


DNA methylation abnormalities have recently emerged as one of the most frequent molecular changes in hematopoietic neoplasms. Since methylation and transcriptional status are inversely correlated, the hypermethylation of genes involved in cell-cycle control and apoptosis could have a pathogenetic role in the development of cancer. In particular, high-risk myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) and secondary leukemias show a high prevalence of tumor suppressor gene hypermethylation. The progression of chronic myeloproliferative diseases and of myelodysplastic syndromes, as well as that of lymphoproliferative diseases, is associated with an increased methylation rate, pointing to a role for hypermethylation of critical promoter regions in the transformation to more aggressive phenotypes. In the same line, a significantly worse prognosis has been shown for patients with hypermethylation of several genes compared to that of patients with unmethylated genes. For these reasons, the use of irreversible DNA methyltransferase inhibitors, such as 5-azacytidine and Decitabine, appears to be a promising option for the treatment of MDS and acute myeloid leukemia. In clinical trials, Azacytidine results in a significantly higher response rate, improved quality of life, reduced risk of leukemic transformation, and improved survival compared to supportive care. Similarly, Decitabine showed favorable results, promising response rates, a good nonhematologic toxicity profile, and a trend for better survival compared to intensive chemotherapy, particularly in older patients. The synergistic effect of histone deacetylase inhibitors, including phenylbutyrate (PB), in reactivating silenced genes encouraged clinical studies on the combination of PB and demethylating agents in hematological diseases, characterized by p15 silencing. The sequential administration of a "first generation" demethylating agent and HDAC inhibitors gave preliminary evidence of a reduced methylation of target genes, as also described with Decitabine. Clinical trials are still ongoing, and preliminary data indicate for the first time that the natural history of MDS may be changed by a non-intensive treatment, characterized by an outstanding toxicity profile.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acetylation
  • Azacitidine / analogs & derivatives*
  • Azacitidine / therapeutic use
  • Cytidine / analogs & derivatives
  • Cytidine / chemistry
  • Cytidine / therapeutic use
  • DNA Methylation / drug effects*
  • Decitabine
  • Hematologic Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Hematologic Neoplasms / genetics
  • Hematologic Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Histones / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Leukemia, Myeloid / drug therapy
  • Leukemia, Myeloid / genetics
  • Leukemia, Myeloid / metabolism
  • Myelodysplastic Syndromes / drug therapy*
  • Myelodysplastic Syndromes / genetics
  • Myelodysplastic Syndromes / metabolism*


  • Histones
  • Cytidine
  • Decitabine
  • Azacitidine