Epigenetics in non-small cell lung cancer: from basics to therapeutics

Transl Lung Cancer Res. 2016 Apr;5(2):155-71. doi: 10.21037/tlcr.2016.02.02.


Lung cancer remains the number one cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide with 221,200 estimated new cases and 158,040 estimated deaths in 2015. Approximately 80% of cases are non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). The diagnosis is usually made at an advanced stage where the prognosis is poor and therapeutic options are limited. The evolution of lung cancer is a multistep process involving genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factor interactions that result in the dysregulation of key oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes, culminating in activation of cancer-related signaling pathways. The past decade has witnessed the discovery of multiple molecular aberrations that drive lung cancer growth, among which are epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutations and translocations involving the anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene. This has translated into therapeutic agent developments that target these molecular alterations. The absence of targetable mutations in 50% of NSCLC cases and targeted therapy resistance development underscores the importance for developing alternative therapeutic strategies for treating lung cancer. Among these strategies, pharmacologic modulation of the epigenome has been used to treat lung cancer. Epigenetics approaches may circumvent the problem of tumor heterogeneity by affecting the expression of multiple tumor suppression genes (TSGs), halting tumor growth and survival. Moreover, it may be effective for tumors that are not driven by currently recognized druggable mutations. This review summarizes the molecular pathology of lung cancer epigenetic aberrations and discusses current efforts to target the epigenome with different pharmacological approaches. Our main focus will be on hypomethylating agents, histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors, microRNA modulations, and the role of novel epigenetic biomarkers. Last, we will address the challenges that face this old-new strategy in treating lung cancer.

Keywords: DNA methylation; Lung cancer; biomarkers; epigenetic therapy; histone deacetylases (HDACs); microRNA.

Publication types

  • Review