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Epigenetic Drugs Take On Cancer

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Science  29 Oct 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6004, pp. 576-578
DOI: 10.1126/science.330.6004.576

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Many cancer biologists have come to think that DNA methylation, a process in which enzymes tack methyl groups onto genes and block their activity, and other so-called epigenetic changes might be as important as genetic mutations in causing cancer. Now a so-called epigenetics dream team has received more than $9 million from a glitzy Hollywood campaign called Stand Up To Cancer to help fund the first phase II clinical trials to test DNA demethylating drugs—already used successfully to treat a blood cancer—for solid tumors such as lung cancer. The idea is not to kill cancer cells but to correct their DNA methylation and thereby "reprogram" them to behave more normally. But some scientists worry that instead of resetting epigenetic patterns, the primary drug being tested simply kills cells, whether cancerous or healthy ones, and therefore has toxic side effects. Precisely how the treatment works isn't yet known. And because drugs that remove methyl groups from DNA can potentially switch on hundreds of genes in healthy cells, including known oncogenes, there is concern that the drugs could cure one kind of cancer but cause another.