Epigenetic cancer therapy: rationales, targets and drugs

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Abstract

The fundamental role of altered epigenetic modification patterns in tumorigenesis establishes epigenetic regulatory enzymes as important targets for cancer therapy. Over the past few years, several drugs with an epigenetic activity have received approval for the treatment of cancer patients, which has led to a detailed characterization of their modes of action. The results showed that both established drug classes, the histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors and the DNA methyltransferase inhibitors, show substantial limitations in their epigenetic specificity. HDAC inhibitors are highly specific drugs, but the enzymes have a broad substrate specificity and deacetylate numerous proteins that are not associated with epigenetic regulation. Similarly, the induction of global DNA demethylation by non-specific inhibition of DNA methyltransferases shows pleiotropic effects on epigenetic regulation with no apparent tumor-specificity. Second-generation azanucleoside drugs have integrated the knowledge about the cellular uptake and metabolization pathways, but do not show any increased specificity for cancer epigenotypes. As such, the traditional rationale of epigenetic cancer therapy appears to be in need of refinement, as we move from the global inhibition of epigenetic modifications toward the identification and targeting of tumor-specific epigenetic programs. Recent studies have identified epigenetic mechanisms that promote self-renewal and developmental plasticity in cancer cells. Druggable somatic mutations in the corresponding epigenetic regulators are beginning to be identified and should facilitate the development of epigenetic therapy approaches with improved tumor specificity.

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