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Differentiation. 2009 Jul;78(1):1-17. doi: 10.1016/j.diff.2009.04.002. Epub 2009 May 14.

Epigenetic gene regulation in stem cells and correlation to cancer.

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Cancer Stem Cell Section, Laboratory of Cancer Prevention, Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute at Frederick, Frederick, MD 21702, USA.


Through the classic study of genetics, much has been learned about the regulation and progression of human disease. Specifically, cancer has been defined as a disease driven by genetic alterations, including mutations in tumor-suppressor genes and oncogenes, as well as chromosomal abnormalities. However, the study of normal human development has identified that in addition to classical genetics, regulation of gene expression is also modified by 'epigenetic' alterations including chromatin remodeling and histone variants, DNA methylation, the regulation of polycomb group proteins, and the epigenetic function of non-coding RNA. These changes are modifications inherited during both meiosis and mitosis, yet they do not result in alterations of the actual DNA sequence. A number of biological questions are directly influenced by epigenetics, such as how does a cell know when to divide, differentiate or remain quiescent, and more importantly, what happens when these pathways become altered? Do these alterations lead to the development and/or progression of cancer? This review will focus on summarizing the limited current literature involving epigenetic alterations in the context of human cancer stems cells (CSCs). The extent to which epigenetic changes define cell fate, identity, and phenotype are still under intense investigation, and many questions remain largely unanswered. Before discussing epigenetic gene silencing in CSCs, the different classifications of stem cells and their properties will be introduced. This will be followed by an introduction to the different epigenetic mechanisms. Finally, there will be a discussion of the current knowledge of epigenetic modifications in stem cells, specifically what is known from rodent systems and established cancer cell lines, and how they are leading us to understand human stem cells.

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