Epimutation is defined as abnormal transcriptional repression of active genes and/or abnormal activation of usually repressed genes caused by errors in epigenetic gene repression. Epimutation arises in somatic cells and the germline, and constitutional epimutation may also occur. Epimutation is the first step of tumorigenesis and can be a direct cause of carcinogenesis. Cancers associated with epimutation include Lynch syndrome (hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer, HNPCC), chronic lymphocytic leukemia, breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Epimutation has been shown for many tumor suppressor genes, including RB, VHL, hMLH1, APC and BRCA1, in sporadic cancers. Methylation has recently been shown in DNA from normal tissues and peripheral blood in cases of sporadic colorectal cancer and many studies show constitutive epimutation in cancers. Epimutation of DNA mismatch repair (MMR) genes (BRCA1, hMLH1 and hMSH2) involved in development familial cancers has also been found. These results have led to a focus on epimutation as a novel oncogenic mechanism.
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