DNA methylation is not just for basic scientists any more. There is a growing awareness in the medical field that having the correct pattern of genomic methylation is essential for healthy cells and organs. If methylation patterns are not properly established or maintained, disorders as diverse as mental retardation, immune deficiency, and sporadic or inherited cancers may follow. Through inappropriate silencing of growth regulating genes and simultaneous destabilisation of whole chromosomes, methylation defects help create a chaotic state from which cancer cells evolve. Methylation defects are present in cells before the onset of obvious malignancy and therefore cannot be explained simply as a consequence of a deregulated cancer cell. Researchers are now able to detect with exquisite sensitivity the cells harbouring methylation defects, sometimes months or years before the time when cancer is clinically detectable. Furthermore, aberrant methylation of specific genes has been directly linked with the tumour response to chemotherapy and patient survival. Advances in our ability to observe the methylation status of the entire cancer cell genome have led us to the unmistakable conclusion that methylation abnormalities are far more prevalent than expected. This methylomics approach permits the integration of an ever growing repertoire of methylation defects with the genetic alterations catalogued from tumours over the past two decades. Here we discuss the current knowledge of DNA methylation in normal cells and disease states, and how this relates directly to our current understanding of the mechanisms by which tumours arise.
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