While it is now well established that cancer is a consequence of genetic alterations, it is becoming increasingly clear that disruption of epigenetic mechanisms is also a hallmark of the disease. Those epigenetic mechanisms help control the expression of genes—whether they are turned on or off—without affecting the genes’ DNA sequences themselves.
Thus, whether a cell becomes cancerous depends not only on its genome (whether key genes are mutated), but also on its epigenome (whether genes are expressed appropriately). Epigenomics has become the focus of a rapidly emerging and important new area of cancer research.
Unlike DNA mutations, which are permanent, epigenetic changes can be reversed. This means that it may be possible to find a way to regulate inappropriate activity or to get a gene that is improperly expressed, due to epigenetic changes, to begin functioning normally again.
The SU2C Epigenetics Dream Team used a combination of two drugs (a DNA-demethylating agent and a histone deacetylase inhibitor) to reverse the epigenetic modifications that have inappropriately turned genes on or off in cancer cells. The overarching goal of this project was to bring the promise of epigenetic therapy to clinical practice.