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J Mammary Gland Biol Neoplasia. 2001 Apr;6(2):169-82.

Genes, chromatin, and breast cancer: an epigenetic tale.

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  • 1Division of Experimental Pathology, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, New York 14263, USA.


The production of heritable changes in gene expression is the driving force in the development and progression of breast cancer. Such changes can result from mutations or from epigenetic events such as hypermethylation of DNA and hypoacetylation of histones. Histone acetylation and DNA methylation are major determinants of chromatin structure, and chromatin structure is a primary regulator of gene transcription. Cancer cells frequently contain both mutated genes and genes with altered expression due to one or more epigenetic mechanisms. This review describes the epigenetic changes that disrupt normal chromatin architecture and modify the expression of key genes in breast cancer cells. The structural integrity of the latter genes is usually intact, but their expression has been substantially altered due to methylation in their promoter region or deacetylation of histones that interact with their promoter region or both mechanisms. Genes affected by epigenetic changes in breast cancers include HoxA5, p21WAF, gelsolin, BRCA1, BRCA2, E-cadherin, steroid hormone receptors, and retinoic acid receptor II. Because these epigenetic modifications are usually reversible by treatment with certain drugs, they represent vulnerabilities in the cancer cell that can be exploited as novel targets for new prevention and therapeutic strategies.

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