Switched on to cancer

C&I Issue 17, 2009

Cancer cells are probably the most successful cell types. They evolve extremely successfully, manipulating their environment efficiently to occupy every possible niche in the host organism. So in response, a successful therapy must also be just as manipulative, multifaceted and robust. Epigenetic cancer therapy is a branch of gene therapy that targets the disease by interfering with the expression of genes driving the cancerous process, rather than killing the transformed cells.

If the genome is the hard disc of a computer containing the blueprint for the creation, function, maintenance and reproduction of the organism, then epigenetics is the operating system to make all of that information accessible. All cells have the hard disk, loaded with the same genes but the operating system – epigenetics – sees to it that only those genes relevant to that particular cell for its function are turned on and off at the right times.

Epigenetics basically describes when, where and how a gene is expressed. This process of gene activation and deactivation is a function of changes in the chromatin structure – the DNA–histone complex – of chromosomes (see Box 1 opposite). Any changes in gene expression are not due to or dependent on the underlying DNA base sequence but are introduced by modifications on the DNA itself or on the associated core histones in the chromatin or both. These changes, often involving the methylation or demethylation of chromatin, are heritable at cell division but are also dynamic and easily reversible as opposed to changes in the genetic DNA sequence, which are permanent and almost impossible to reverse.

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