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Biochem Cell Biol. 2005 Jun;83(3):296-321.

Causes and consequences of DNA hypomethylation in human cancer.

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  • 1Department of Urology, Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf, Germany.


While specific genes are hypermethylated in the genome of cancer cells, overall methylcytosine content is often decreased as a consequence of hypomethylation affecting many repetitive sequences. Hypomethylation is also observed at a number of single-copy genes. While global hypomethylation is highly prevalent across all cancer types, it often displays considerable specificity with regard to tumor type, tumor stage, and sequences affected. Following an overview of hypomethylation alterations in various cancers, this review focuses on 3 hypotheses. First, hypomethylation at a single-copy gene may occur as a 2-step process, in which selection for gene function follows upon random hypo methylation. In this fashion, hypomethylation facilitates the adaptation of cancer cells to the ever-changing tumor tissue microenvironment, particularly during metastasis. Second, the development of global hypomethylation is intimately linked to chromatin restructuring and nuclear disorganization in cancer cells, reflected in a large number of changes in histone-modifying enzymes and other chromatin regulators. Third, DNA hypomethylation may occur at least partly as a consequence of cell cycle deregulation disturbing the coordination between DNA replication and activity of DNA methyltransferases. Finally, because of their relation to tumor progression and metastasis, DNA hypomethylation markers may be particularly useful to classify cancer and predict their clinical course.

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