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Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2003 Mar;983:161-9.

Environmental exposure, DNA methylation, and gene regulation: lessons from diethylstilbesterol-induced cancers.

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Laboratory of Biosystems and Cancer, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, USA.


DNA methylation is an epigenetic mechanism that regulates chromosomal stability and gene expression. Abnormal DNA methylation patterns have been observed in many types of human tumors, including those of the breast, prostate, colon, thyroid, stomach, uterus, and cervix. We and others have shown that exposure to a wide variety of xenobiotics during critical periods of mammalian development can persistently alter the pattern of DNA methylation, resulting in potentially adverse biological effects such as aberrant gene expression. Thus, this epigenetic mechanism may underlie the observed increased risk in adulthood of several chronic diseases, including cancer, in response to xenobiotic exposures early in life. We present here the lessons learned from studies on the effects of perinatal diethylstilbesterol (DES) exposure on the methylation pattern of the promoters of several estrogen-responsive genes associated with the development of reproductive organs. Perinatal DES exposure, which induces epithelial tumors of the uterus in mice and is associated with several reproductive tract abnormalities and increased vaginal and cervical cancer risk in women, provides a clear example of how estrogenic xenobiotic exposure during a critical period of development can abnormally demethylate DNA sequences during organ development and possibly increase cancer risk later in life. In addition, nutritional factors and stress may also alter DNA methylation during early life and modulate the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases in adulthood. We suggest that DNA methylation status may be influenced by environmental exposures in early life, leading to increased risk of cancer in adulthood.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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