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Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2000 Jun;910:140-53; discussion 153-5.

The epigenetics of colorectal cancer.

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University of Texas at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston 77030, USA.


Colorectal cancer has provided an excellent model for studying the genetic basis of cancer and is one of the better-understood malignancies in this regard. The orderly progression of the disease, with distinct genetic alterations at each step, is a useful framework for deciphering the molecular basis of neoplasia. Epigenetics, the study of clonal changes in gene expression without associated genetic lesions, has raised increased interest recently, in part because of the identification of DNA methylation as a potential molecular mediator of the process. Several tumor-suppressor genes are silenced in various neoplasms in association with aberrant promoter methylation, and in the absence of coding region mutations. The study of DNA methylation changes in colorectal cancer has now provided additional clues into the pathogenesis of the disease. This review presents evidence for a model whereby DNA methylation changes play two distinct roles in the molecular evolution of colorectal cancer. Initially, progressive methylation and silencing of a subset of genes takes place in normal tissues as a function of age or time-dependent events and predisposes these normal cells to neoplastic transformation. At a later stage of disease progression, DNA methylation plays an important role in a subset of tumors affected by the CpG island methylator phenotype (CIMP), a recently identified pathway that results in a form of epigenetic instability through the simultaneous silencing of multiple genes. DNA methylation changes have important interactions with genetic lesions in this cancer type. CIMP+ cancers include the majority of tumors with sporadic mismatch repair deficiency through hypermethylation of the hMLH1 promoter, and also account for the majority of tumors with Ki-ras mutations through an unknown mechanism. By contrast, CIMP- cases evolve along a more classic genetic instability pathway, with a high rate of p53 mutations and chromosomal changes. Thus, the integration of epigenetic and genetic information provides a more complete molecular understanding of colorectal cancer and may have implications for the diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of patients affected by this disease.

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