Histone deacetylase inhibitors: understanding a new wave of anticancer agents

Int J Cancer. 2004 Nov 1;112(2):171-8. doi: 10.1002/ijc.20372.


Cancer is as much an epigenetic disease as it is a genetic and cytogenetic disease. The discovery that drastic changes in DNA methylation and histone modifications are commonly found in human tumors has inspired various laboratories and pharmaceutical companies to develop and study epigenetic drugs. One of the most promising groups of agents is the inhibitors of histone deacetylases (HDACs), which have different biochemical and biologic properties but have a single common activity: induction of acetylation in histones, the key proteins in nucleosome and chromatin structure. One of the main mechanisms of action of HDAC inhibitors is the transcriptional reactivation of dormant tumor-suppressor genes, such as p21WAF1. However, their pleiotropic nature leaves open the possibility that their well-known differentiation, cell-cycle arrest and apoptotic properties are also involved in other functions associated with HDAC inhibition. Many phase I clinical trials indicate that HDAC inhibitors appear to be well-tolerated drugs. Thus, the field is ready for rigorous biologic and clinical scrutiny to validate the therapeutic potential of these drugs. Our current data indicate that the use of HDAC inhibitors, probably in association with classical chemotherapy drugs or in combination with DNA-demethylating agents, could be promising for cancer patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Cell Cycle
  • Cell Differentiation
  • DNA Methylation*
  • Enzyme Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic*
  • Genes, Tumor Suppressor*
  • Histone Deacetylase Inhibitors*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology*
  • Neoplasms / therapy


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Enzyme Inhibitors
  • Histone Deacetylase Inhibitors