DNA methylation: a marker for carcinogen exposure and cancer risk

Environ Health Prev Med. 2008 Jan;13(1):8-15. doi: 10.1007/s12199-007-0005-x. Epub 2007 Dec 11.


Cancers arise as a consequence of multiple genetic and epigenetic alterations. Many genes aberrantly methylated in cancers have been identified in recent years, and their use in cancer diagnosis and therapy is currently under investigation. During our genome-wide screening for a novel tumor-suppressor gene in gastric cancers, we found that only a small amount of aberrant methylation was present, even in non-cancerous gastric mucosae. A subsequent large-scale analysis of the gastric mucosae of healthy individuals and gastric cancer patients using quantitative methylation-specific PCR (qMSP) revealed that Helicobacter pylori infection potently induced aberrant DNA methylation in non-cancerous gastric mucosae and that these high methylation levels can decrease following cessation of the H. pylori infection. Helicobacter pylori infection induced the methylation of specific genes among 48 genes that can be methylated in gastric cancer cell lines. Most importantly, the methylation levels in the gastric mucosae of individuals without H. pylori infection correlated with their risk of gastric cancer. These findings show that a field for cancerization is formed by H. pylori infection and that this field can be measured using DNA methylation as a marker. The concept of an "epigenetic field for cancerization" has been also demonstrated for colon and breast cancers, and it is possibly present for other cancers and other diseases. Applied knowledge of epigenetic changes in human diseases has now started to make an impact on the prevention, diagnostics, and therapeutics of these diseases.