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Toxicol Mech Methods. 2011 May;21(4):275-88. doi: 10.3109/15376516.2011.562671.

Cancer epigenetics: above and beyond.

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Division of Head and Neck Cancer Research, Department of Otolaryngology and Head & Neck Surgery, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD 21231, USA.


Epigenetics refers to the study of mechanisms that alter gene expression without altering the primary DNA sequence. Epigenetic mechanisms are heritable and reversible. Over the last few decades, epigenetics has obtained a large importance in cancer research. Epigenetic alterations are widely described as essential players in cancer progression. They comprise DNA methylation, histone modifications, nucleosome positioning, and small, noncoding RNAs (miRNA, siRNA). They are involved in transcriptional changes and decisive events that will determine cell fate and phenotype. Epigenetics not only offers light into cancer biological processes, but also represents an attractive opportunity of reverting cancer-specific alterations, which may lead, in the future, to a possibility of stopping this disease. Epigenetic changes have been identified as putative cancer biomarkers for early detection, disease monitoring, prognosis, and risk assessment. Other epigenetic alterations are promising therapeutic targets and even therapeutic agents. Emerging discoveries in this area are already contributing to cancer management and monitoring, and a lot more progresses are expected in the future.

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