O(6)-Methylguanine-DNA methyltransferase (MGMT) is a suicide enzyme that repairs the pre-mutagenic, pre-carcinogenic and pre-toxic DNA damage O(6)-methylguanine. It also repairs larger adducts on the O(6)-position of guanine, such as O(6)-[4-oxo-4-(3-pyridyl)butyl]guanine and O(6)-chloroethylguanine. These adducts are formed in response to alkylating environmental pollutants, tobacco-specific carcinogens and methylating (procarbazine, dacarbazine, streptozotocine, and temozolomide) as well as chloroethylating (lomustine, nimustine, carmustine, and fotemustine) anticancer drugs. MGMT is therefore a key node in the defense against commonly found carcinogens, and a marker of resistance of normal and cancer cells exposed to alkylating therapeutics. MGMT also likely protects against therapy-related tumor formation caused by these highly mutagenic drugs. Since the amount of MGMT determines the level of repair of toxic DNA alkylation adducts, the MGMT expression level provides important information as to cancer susceptibility and the success of therapy. In this article, we describe the methods employed for detecting MGMT and review the literature with special focus on MGMT activity in normal and neoplastic tissues. The available data show that the expression of MGMT varies greatly in normal tissues and in some cases this has been related to cancer predisposition. MGMT silencing in tumors is mainly regulated epigenetically and in brain tumors this correlates with a better therapeutic response. Conversely, up-regulation of MGMT during cancer treatment limits the therapeutic response. In malignant melanoma, MGMT is not related to the therapeutic response, which is due to other mechanisms of inherent drug resistance. For most cancers, studies that relate MGMT activity to therapeutic outcome following O(6)-alkylating drugs are still lacking.
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