Prolonged exposure to elevated levels of estrogen is a risk factor for breast cancer. Though increased cell growth and loss of DNA repair capacity is one of the proposed mechanisms for estrogen-induced cancers, the mechanism through which estrogen induces cell growth and decreases DNA repair capacity is not clear. DNA hypermethylation is known to inactivate DNA repair genes and apoptotic response in cancer cells. Therefore, the objective of this study was to determine the role of DNA hypermethylation in estrogen-induced cell growth and regulation of DNA repair genes expression in breast cancer cells. To achieve this objective, the estrogen-responsive MCF-7 cells either pretreated with 5-aza-2-deoxycytidine (5-aza-dC) or untreated (as control) were exposed to 17 beta-estradiol (E2), and its effect on cell growth and expression of DNA repair genes were measured. The result revealed that 5-aza-dC abrogates the E2-induced growth in MCF-7 cells. An increased expression of OGG1, MSH4, and MLH1 by 5-aza-dC treatment alone, suggest the DNA hypermethylation as a potential cause for decreased expression of these genes in MCF-7 cells. The decreased expression of ERCC1, XPC, OGG1, and MLH1 by E2 alone and its restoration by co-treatment with 5-aza-dC further suggest that E2 reduces the expression of these DNA repair genes potentially through promoter hypermethylation. Reactivation of mismatch repair (MMR) gene MLH1 and abrogation of E2-induced cell growth by 5-aza-dC treatment suggest that estrogen causes increased growth in breast cancer cells potentially through the inhibition of MMR-mediated apoptotic response. In summary, this study suggests that estrogen increases cell growth and decreases the DNA repair capacity in breast cancer cells, at least in part, through epigenetic mechanism.
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