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Int J Hyg Environ Health. 2014 Jul;217(6):601-27. doi: 10.1016/j.ijheh.2014.01.001. Epub 2014 Jan 28.

The effects of environmental chemical carcinogens on the microRNA machinery.

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Department of Health Sciences, University of Genoa, Italy; Mutagenesis Unit, IRCCS University Hospital San Martino - IST National Research Cancer Institute, Genoa, Italy. Electronic address:
Department of Health Sciences, University of Genoa, Italy.


The first evidence that microRNA expression is early altered by exposure to environmental chemical carcinogens in still healthy organisms was obtained for cigarette smoke. To date, the cumulative experimental data indicate that similar effects are caused by a variety of environmental carcinogens, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nitropyrenes, endocrine disruptors, airborne mixtures, carcinogens in food and water, and carcinogenic drugs. Accordingly, the alteration of miRNA expression is a general mechanism that plays an important pathogenic role in linking exposure to environmental toxic agents with their pathological consequences, mainly including cancer development. This review summarizes the existing experimental evidence concerning the effects of chemical carcinogens on the microRNA machinery. For each carcinogen, the specific microRNA alteration signature, as detected in experimental studies, is reported. These data are useful for applying microRNA alterations as early biomarkers of biological effects in healthy organisms exposed to environmental carcinogens. However, microRNA alteration results in carcinogenesis only if accompanied by other molecular damages. As an example, microRNAs altered by chemical carcinogens often inhibits the expression of mutated oncogenes. The long-term exposure to chemical carcinogens causes irreversible suppression of microRNA expression thus allowing the transduction into proteins of mutated oncogenes. This review also analyzes the existing knowledge regarding the mechanisms by which environmental carcinogens alter microRNA expression. The underlying molecular mechanism involves p53-microRNA interconnection, microRNA adduct formation, and alterations of Dicer function. On the whole, reported findings provide evidence that microRNA analysis is a molecular toxicology tool that can elucidate the pathogenic mechanisms activated by environmental carcinogens.


Carcinogenesis; Dicer; Environmental chemical carcinogens; MicroRNA

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