We evaluated the significance of aberrant DNA methyltransferase 1 (DNMT1) protein expression during gastric carcinogenesis. The protein expression of DNMT1, Muc2, human gastric mucin, E-cadherin, and proliferating cell nuclear antigen was examined immunohistochemically in gastric cancers and corresponding noncancerous mucosae from 134 patients. The DNA methylation status of the CpG islands of the p16, human MutL homologue 1 (hMLH1), E-cadherin, and thrombospondin-1 (THBS-1) genes and the methylated in tumor (MINT)-1, -2, -12, and -31 clones was examined by methylation-specific polymerase chain reaction and combined bisulfite restriction enzyme analysis. Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection was detected by in situ hybridization. Nuclear immunoreactivity for DNMT1 was not detected in any of the noncancerous epithelia, except in proliferative zones (positive internal control), but was found in 97 (72%) of the gastric cancers. DNMT1 overexpression correlated significantly with poorer tumor differentiation (P < 0.001), but not with the phenotype (gastric type versus intestinal type) of the cancer cells. It also correlated significantly with DNA hypermethylation of the CpG islands of the hMLH1 (P = 0.024) and THBS-1 genes (P = 0.043), and with the CpG island methylator phenotype in the gastric cancers (P = 0.007). Reduced E-cadherin expression correlated significantly with poorer tumor differentiation (P = 0.002), DNA hypermethylation of the E-cadherin gene (P < 0.001) and DNMT1 overexpression (P = 0.014). DNMT1 overexpression was also associated with EBV infection (a potential etiological factor in gastric carcinogenesis) but not with the proliferative activity of the cancer cells as indicated by the proliferating cell nuclear antigen-labeling index. These results suggest that DNMT1 overexpression may not be just a secondary effect of increased cancer cell proliferative activity, but may be associated with EBV infection and other etiological factors during gastric carcinogenesis. Furthermore, DNMT1 may play a significant role in the development of poorly differentiated gastric cancers by inducing frequent DNA hypermethylation of multiple CpG islands.
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