Cancer and Epigenetic Alterations
Silencing genes through epigenetic mechanisms is also very common in cancer cells. There are characteristic modifications to histone proteins and DNA that are associated with silenced genes. In cancer cells, the DNA in the promoter region of silenced genes is methylated on cytosine DNA residues in CpG islands. Histone proteins that surround that region lack the acetylation modification that is present when the genes are expressed in normal cells. This combination of DNA methylation and histone deacetylation (epigenetic modifications that lead to gene silencing) is commonly found in cancer. When these modifications occur, the gene present in that chromosomal region is silenced. Increasingly, scientists understand how epigenetic changes are altered in cancer. Because these changes are temporary and can be reversed—for example, by preventing the action of the histone deacetylase protein that removes acetyl groups, or by DNA methyl transferase enzymes that add methyl groups to cytosines in DNA—it is possible to design new drugs and new therapies to take advantage of the reversible nature of these processes. Indeed, many researchers are testing how a silenced gene can be switched back on in a cancer cell to help re-establish normal growth patterns.
Genes involved in the development of many other illnesses, ranging from allergies to inflammation to autism, are thought to be regulated by epigenetic mechanisms. As our knowledge of how genes are controlled deepens, new ways to treat diseases like cancer will emerge.