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Med Sci (Paris). 2005 Apr;21(4):405-11.

[Epigenetics and cancer].

[Article in French]

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Welcome Trust-Cancer Research UK, Gurdon Institute of cancer and developmental biology, University of Cambridge, Royaume-Uni.


Epigenetics is defined as "the study of mitotically and/or meiotically heritable changes in gene expression that cannot be explained by changes in the DNA sequence". Setting up the epigenetic program is crucial for correct development and its stable inheritance throughout its lifespan is essential for the maintenance of the tissue- and cell-specific functions of the organism. For many years, the genetic causes of cancer have hold centre stage. However, the recent wealth of information about the molecular mechanisms which, by modulating the chromatin structure, can regulate gene expression has high-lighted the predominant role of epigenetic modifications in the initiation and progression of numerous pathologies, including cancer. The nucleosome is the major target of these epigenetic regulation mechanisms. They include a series of tightly interconnected steps which starting with the setting ("writing") of the epigenetic mark till its "reading" and interpretation will result in long-term gene regulation. The major epigenetic changes associated with tumorigenesis are aberrant DNA methylation of CpG islands located in the promoter region of tumor suppressor gene, global genomic hypomethylation and covalent modifications of histone N-terminal tails which are protruding out from the nucleosome core. In sharp contrast with genetic modifications, epigenetic modifications are highly dynamic and reversible. The characterization of specific inhibitors directed against some key epigenetic players has opened a new and promising therapeutic avenue, the epigenetic therapy, since some inhibitors are already used in clinical trials.

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