Enhancer alterations in cancer: a source for a cell identity crisis

Genome Med. 2014 Sep 23;6(9):77. doi: 10.1186/s13073-014-0077-3. eCollection 2014.


Enhancers are selectively utilized to orchestrate gene expression programs that first govern pluripotency and then proceed to highly specialized programs required for the process of cellular differentiation. Whereas gene-proximal promoters are typically active across numerous cell types, distal enhancer activation is cell-type-specific and central to cell fate determination, thereby accounting for cell identity. Recent studies have highlighted the diversity of enhancer usage, cataloguing millions of such elements in the human genome. The disruption of enhancer activity, through genetic or epigenetic alterations, can impact cell-type-specific functions, resulting in a wide range of pathologies. In cancer, these alterations can promote a 'cell identity crisis', in which enhancers associated with oncogenes and multipotentiality are activated, while those promoting cell fate commitment are inactivated. Overall, these alterations favor an undifferentiated cellular phenotype. Here, we review the current knowledge regarding the role of enhancers in normal cell function, and discuss how genetic and epigenetic changes in enhancer elements potentiate oncogenesis. In addition, we discuss how understanding the mechanisms regulating enhancer activity can inform therapeutic opportunities in cancer cells and highlight key challenges that remain in understanding enhancer biology as it relates to oncology.