Epigenetics refers to stable alterations in gene expression with no underlying modifications in the genetic sequence and is best exemplified by differentiation, in which multiple cell types diverge physiologically despite a common genetic code. Interest in this area of science has grown over the past decades, especially since it was found to play a major role in physiologic phenomena such as embryogenesis, imprinting, and X chromosome inactivation, and in disease states such as cancer. The latter had been previously thought of as a disease with an exclusive genetic etiology. However, recent data have demonstrated that the complexity of human carcinogenesis cannot be accounted for by genetic alterations alone, but also involves epigenetic changes in processes such as DNA methylation, histone modifications, and microRNA expression. In turn, these molecular alterations lead to permanent changes in the expression of genes that regulate the neoplastic phenotype, such as cellular growth and invasiveness. Targeting epigenetic modifiers has been referred to as epigenetic therapy. The success of this approach in hematopoietic malignancies validates the importance of epigenetic alterations in cancer, not only at the therapeutic level but also with regard to prevention, diagnosis, risk stratification, and prognosis.
© 2010 American Cancer Society, Inc.