Alterations of DNA methylation can account for the histological heterogeneity, reflected in the stepwise progression and complex biological characteristics of human cancers, that genetic alterations alone cannot explain. Analysis of DNA methylation status in tissue samples can be an aid to understanding the molecular mechanisms of multistage carcinogenesis. Human cancer cells show a drastic change in DNA methylation status, that is, overall DNA hypomethylation and regional DNA hypermethylation, which results in chromosomal instability and silencing of tumor-suppressor genes. Overexpression of DNA methyltransferase (DNMT) 1 is not a secondary result of increased cell proliferative activity but may underline the CpG island methylator phenotype of cancers. Splicing alteration of DNMT3B may result in chromosomal instability through DNA hypomethylation of pericentromeric satellite regions. Alterations of DNA methylation are observed even in the precancerous stage frequently associated with chronic inflammation and/or persistent viral infection or with cigarette smoking. Precancerous conditions showing alterations of DNA methylation may generate more malignant cancers. Aberrant DNA methylation is significantly associated with aggressiveness of cancers and poorer outcome of cancer patients. Genome-wide analysis of DNA methylation status based on array-based technology may identify DNA methylation profiles that can be used as appropriate indicators for carcinogenetic risk estimation and prognostication.
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