Methylation of DNA in cancer

Adv Clin Chem. 2010:52:145-67. doi: 10.1016/s0065-2423(10)52006-7.


Epigenetic mechanisms are essential for normal development and maintenance of tissue-specific gene expression patterns in mammals. Disruption of epigenetic processes can lead to altered gene function and malignant cellular transformation. Global changes in the epigenetic landscape are a hallmark of cancer. Methylation of cytosine bases in DNA provides a layer of epigenetic control in many eukaryotes that has important implications for normal biology and disease. DNA methylation is a crucial epigenetic modification of the genome that is involved in regulating many cellular processes. These include embryonic development, transcription, chromatin structure, X-chromosome inactivation, genomic imprinting, and chromosome stability. Consistent with these important roles, a growing number of human diseases including cancer have been found to be associated with aberrant DNA methylation. Recent advancements in the rapidly evolving field of cancer epigenetics have described extensive reprogramming of every component of the epigenetic machinery in cancer, such as DNA demethylation. Hypomethylation of the genome largely affects the intergenic and intronic regions of the DNA, particularly repeat sequences and transposable elements, and it is believed to result in chromosomal instability and increased mutation events. Therefore, we propose that R/G-chromosome band boundaries, which correspond with the early/late-switch regions of replication timing and a transition in relative GC content, correspond to "unstable" genomic regions in which concentrated occurrences of repetitive sequences and transposable elements including LINE and Alu elements are hypomethylated during tumorigenesis. In this review, we discuss the current understanding of alterations in DNA methylation composing the epigenetic landscape that occurs in cancer compared with normal cells, the roles of these changes in cancer initiation and progression, and the potential use of this knowledge in designing more effective treatment strategies.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • DNA Methylation / physiology*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*


  • Antineoplastic Agents