Epigenetics of colorectal cancer: biomarker and therapeutic potential

Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2020 Feb;17(2):111-130. doi: 10.1038/s41575-019-0230-y. Epub 2020 Jan 3.


Colorectal cancer (CRC), a leading cause of cancer-related death worldwide, evolves as a result of the stepwise accumulation of a series of genetic and epigenetic alterations in the normal colonic epithelium, leading to the development of colorectal adenomas and invasive adenocarcinomas. Although genetic alterations have a major role in a subset of CRCs, the pathophysiological contribution of epigenetic aberrations in this malignancy has attracted considerable attention. Data from the past couple of decades has unequivocally illustrated that epigenetic marks are important molecular hallmarks of cancer, as they occur very early in disease pathogenesis, involve virtually all key cancer-associated pathways and, most importantly, can be exploited as clinically relevant disease biomarkers for diagnosis, prognostication and prediction of treatment response. In this Review, we summarize the current knowledge on the best-studied epigenetic modifications in CRC, including DNA methylation and histone modifications, as well as the role of non-coding RNAs as epigenetic regulators. We focus on the emerging potential for the bench-to-bedside translation of some of these epigenetic alterations into clinical practice and discuss the burgeoning evidence supporting the potential of emerging epigenetic therapies in CRC as we usher in the era of precision medicine.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adenocarcinoma / genetics*
  • Adenocarcinoma / therapy
  • Adenoma / genetics*
  • Adenoma / therapy
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / therapy
  • DNA Methylation
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / genetics*
  • Histone Code
  • Humans
  • MicroRNAs / genetics*
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy
  • Prognosis


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • MicroRNAs