Alteration of DNA methylation is one of the most consistent epigenetic changes in human cancers. DNA methyltransferase (DNMT) 1 is a major enzyme involved in establishing genomic methylation patterns. Most of the studies concerning DNMT1 expression in human cancers have been performed only at the mRNA level. To directly examine DNMT1 protein expression levels during human hepatocarcinogenesis, 16 histologically normal liver tissues, 51 noncancerous liver tissues exhibiting chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis, which are considered to be precancerous conditions, and 53 hepatocellular carcinomas (HCCs) were subjected to immunohistochemic examination. If more than 20% of the cells exhibited nuclear DNMT1 staining, the tissue sample was considered to be DNMT1-positive. DNMT1 immunoreactivity was observed in 23 (43%) of the HCCs, but in none (0%) of the histologically normal liver or noncancerous liver tissues exhibiting chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis. The incidence of increased DNMT1 protein expression in HCCs correlated significantly with poor tumor differentiation (p = 0.0006) and portal vein involvement (p = 0.0002). Moreover, the recurrence-free (p = 0.0001) and overall (p < 0.0001) survival rates of patients with HCCs exhibiting increased DNMT1 protein expression were significantly lower than those of patients with HCCs that did not exhibit increased expression. Increased DNMT I protein expression may play a critical role in the malignant progression of HCCs and be a biologic predictor of both HCC recurrence and a poor prognosis in HCC patients.
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