Digging deep into "dirty" drugs - modulation of the methylation machinery

Drug Metab Rev. 2015 May;47(2):252-79. doi: 10.3109/03602532.2014.995379. Epub 2015 Jan 8.


DNA methylation and histone modification are epigenetic mechanisms that result in altered gene expression and cellular phenotype. The exact role of methylation in myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML) remains unclear. However, aberrations (e.g. loss-/gain-of-function or up-/down-regulation) in components of epigenetic transcriptional regulation in general, and of the methylation machinery in particular, have been implicated in the pathogenesis of these diseases. In addition, many of these components have been identified as therapeutic targets for patients with MDS/AML, and are also being assessed as potential biomarkers of response or resistance to hypomethylating agents (HMAs). The HMAs 5-azacitidine (AZA) and 2'-deoxy-5-azacitidine (decitabine, DAC) inhibit DNA methylation and have shown significant clinical benefits in patients with myeloid malignancies. Despite being viewed as mechanistically similar drugs, AZA and DAC have differing mechanisms of action. DAC is incorporated 100% into DNA, whereas AZA is incorporated into RNA (80-90%) as well as DNA (10-20%). As such, both drugs inhibit DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs; dependently or independently of DNA replication) resulting in the re-expression of tumor-suppressor genes; however, AZA also has an impact on mRNA and protein metabolism via its inhibition of ribonucleotide reductase, resulting in apoptosis. Herein, we first give an overview of transcriptional regulation, including DNA methylation, post-translational histone-tail modifications, the role of micro-RNA and long-range epigenetic gene silencing. We place special emphasis on epigenetic transcriptional regulation and discuss the implication of various components in the pathogenesis of MDS/AML, their potential as therapeutic targets, and their therapeutic modulation by HMAs and other substances (if known). The main focus of this review is laid on dissecting the rapidly evolving knowledge of AZA and DAC with a special focus on their differing mechanisms of action, and the effect of HMAs on transcriptional regulation.

Keywords: Acute myeloid leukemia; DNA methylation; azacitidine; decitabine; epigenetics; hypomethylating agents; myelodysplastic syndrome; transcriptional regulation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antimetabolites, Antineoplastic / pharmacokinetics
  • Antimetabolites, Antineoplastic / pharmacology*
  • Antimetabolites, Antineoplastic / therapeutic use
  • Azacitidine / analogs & derivatives
  • Azacitidine / pharmacokinetics
  • Azacitidine / pharmacology*
  • Azacitidine / therapeutic use
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • DNA Methylation / drug effects*
  • Decitabine
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / drug effects*
  • Histone Code
  • Humans
  • Leukemia, Myeloid, Acute / drug therapy*
  • Leukemia, Myeloid, Acute / etiology
  • Leukemia, Myeloid, Acute / genetics
  • Myelodysplastic Syndromes / drug therapy*
  • Myelodysplastic Syndromes / etiology
  • Myelodysplastic Syndromes / genetics
  • Transcription, Genetic


  • Antimetabolites, Antineoplastic
  • Decitabine
  • Azacitidine