Understanding histone deacetylases in the cancer development and treatment: an epigenetic perspective of cancer chemotherapy

DNA Cell Biol. 2012 Oct;31 Suppl 1:S62-71. doi: 10.1089/dna.2011.1575. Epub 2012 Mar 30.


Cancer is a pathologic condition that involves genetic and epigenetic events culminating in neoplastic transformation. Alteration in epigenetic events that regulate the transcriptional activity of genes associated with various signaling pathways can influence multiple stages of tumorigenesis. In cancer cells, an imbalance often exists between histone acetyl transferase and histone deacetylase (HDAC) activities, and current research focuses actively on seeking competitive HDAC inhibitors (HDACi) for chemotherapeutic intervention. HDACi are proving useful for cancer prevention and therapy by virtue of their ability to reactivate the expression of epigenetically silenced genes, including those involved in differentiation, cell cycle regulation, apoptosis, angiogenesis, invasion, and metastasis. Furthermore, epidemiological studies suggest that different diets such as intake of cruciferous vegetables may lower the risk of different cancers, and there is growing interest in identifying the specific chemoprotective constituents and mechanistic insights of their action. Interestingly, it has been observed that cancer cells are more sensitive than nontransformed cells to apoptotic induction by some HDACi. Although the mechanistic basis for this sensitivity is unclear, yet HDACi have emerged as important epigenetic target for single and combinatorial chemotherapy. HDACi derived from diverse sources such as microbial, dietary, and synthetic increase acetylation level of cells and bring about anti-proliferative and apoptotic effects specific to cancer cells by way of their role in cell cycle regulation and expression of epigenetically silenced genes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetylation / drug effects
  • Drug Therapy / methods
  • Drug Therapy / trends
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / drug effects
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic / drug effects
  • Histone Deacetylase Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Histone Deacetylases / metabolism*
  • Histones / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*


  • Histone Deacetylase Inhibitors
  • Histones
  • Histone Deacetylases