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Targeting the epigenome

Posted on 05 November, 2013 by Eva Sharpe
This week, I am blogging from the NCRI Cancer Conference in Liverpool and yesterday I went to an interesting session on epigenetics in cancer.

The field of epigenetics is relatively new, having been around for less than 20 years. Epigenetic changes are heritable modifications to the DNA which can prevent a particular gene from being expressed without affecting the DNA sequence, and which can therefore allow genes to be switched on or off at different times. This process occurs in healthy cells, as a normal development processes, but it’s also increasingly becoming clear that it can play an important role in cancer.

Yesterday’s session was chaired by Professor Bob Brown, Professor of Translational Oncology jointly at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and Imperial College London. He talked about research showing that some tumours have widespread epigenetic changes, altering the expression of the genes which are involved in cancer. For example, in a recently published study, Professor Brown looked at ovarian cancers and looked at whether there was any association between particular epigenetic markers and features of the tumours he sampled, such as how well the patients responded to chemotherapy and how quickly their cancer returned after the first round of treatment. He identified markers at three genes which were strongly associated with how well the patients responded to carboplatin-based chemotherapy. In the future we may be able to use this information to tailor treatment according to the epigenetic characteristics of a patient’s tumour.

By understanding these changes, and how they are regulated and controlled, we will also be more likely to be able to use them in new anti-cancer approaches. Unlike mutations in the DNA sequence, epigenetic changes can be reversed using drugs which disrupt the maintenance of the DNA modification. The first generation of epigenetic therapies that work in this way have already been registered for use in some haematological cancers (cancers of the blood or bone marrow).

The other speakers in the session, Professor Chas Bountra from the University of Oxford, Dr Mark Dawson from the Gurdon Institute and Dr Patrick Trojer from Constellation Pharmaceuticals spoke in more detail about the molecular mechanisms involved, some of the emerging epigenetic targets in cancer and the preclinical development of epigenetic therapies entering early clinical trials.

The session described the rich seam of epigenetic targets in cancer. Progress is already being made in some areas, particularly in haematological cancers, and one of the challenges that remains is how to take these therapies forward in other types of tumour. We also heard that epigenetic therapies could be used in combination with other cancer therapies and I will watch with interest to see how this field of research progresses.


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