Molecular pathological epidemiology of epigenetics: emerging integrative science to analyze environment, host, and disease

Mod Pathol. 2013 Apr;26(4):465-84. doi: 10.1038/modpathol.2012.214. Epub 2013 Jan 11.


Epigenetics acts as an interface between environmental/exogenous factors, cellular responses, and pathological processes. Aberrant epigenetic signatures are a hallmark of complex multifactorial diseases (including neoplasms and malignancies such as leukemias, lymphomas, sarcomas, and breast, lung, prostate, liver, and colorectal cancers). Epigenetic signatures (DNA methylation, mRNA and microRNA expression, etc) may serve as biomarkers for risk stratification, early detection, and disease classification, as well as targets for therapy and chemoprevention. In particular, DNA methylation assays are widely applied to formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded archival tissue specimens as clinical pathology tests. To better understand the interplay between etiological factors, cellular molecular characteristics, and disease evolution, the field of 'molecular pathological epidemiology (MPE)' has emerged as an interdisciplinary integration of 'molecular pathology' and 'epidemiology'. In contrast to traditional epidemiological research including genome-wide association studies (GWAS), MPE is founded on the unique disease principle, that is, each disease process results from unique profiles of exposomes, epigenomes, transcriptomes, proteomes, metabolomes, microbiomes, and interactomes in relation to the macroenvironment and tissue microenvironment. MPE may represent a logical evolution of GWAS, termed 'GWAS-MPE approach'. Although epigenome-wide association study attracts increasing attention, currently, it has a fundamental problem in that each cell within one individual has a unique, time-varying epigenome. Having a similar conceptual framework to systems biology, the holistic MPE approach enables us to link potential etiological factors to specific molecular pathology, and gain novel pathogenic insights on causality. The widespread application of epigenome (eg, methylome) analyses will enhance our understanding of disease heterogeneity, epigenotypes (CpG island methylator phenotype, LINE-1 (long interspersed nucleotide element-1; also called long interspersed nuclear element-1; long interspersed element-1; L1) hypomethylation, etc), and host-disease interactions. In this article, we illustrate increasing contribution of modern pathology to broader public health sciences, which attests pivotal roles of pathologists in the new integrated MPE science towards our ultimate goal of personalized medicine and prevention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Epidemiology / trends*
  • Epigenomics / trends*
  • Humans
  • Pathology, Molecular / trends*
  • Precision Medicine / trends*