Journal of cellular physiology. Supplement

Possible epigenetic mechanisms of tumor progression: induction of high-frequency heritable but phenotypically unstable changes in the tumorigenic and metastatic properties of tumor cell populations by 5-azacytidine treatment.

PMID 6205005


Treatment of a variety of highly tumorigenic mouse lines in vitro with chemical mutagens, such as ethyl methane sulfonate (EMS) or N-methyl-N'-nitro-N-nitrosoguanidine (MNNG), can result in extraordinarily high frequencies (sometimes in excess of 90%) of strongly immunogenic clones unable to grow progressively in normal syngeneic hosts. These clones will, however, grow in immunosuppressed hosts and gradually regain tumorigenic ability in normal mice if maintained in long-term (several months-1 year) culture, i.e., they are often phenotypically unstable. These features--phenotypic drift and high frequency--make it unlikely that point mutations are the underlying mechanism involved in the generation of the variants. Results presented here demonstrate that these observations can be reproduced on the same tumor lines using 5-azacytidine--an analogue of cytidine which can be incorporated into DNA causing subsequent extensive hypomethylation of cytosine residues in the absence of any significant mutagenic effects. Furthermore, 5-azacytidine treatment of a nonmetastatic mouse mammary tumor led to the emergence of a small number of heritable but unstable tumor clones capable of spontaneous metastatic spread. Because it is known that DNA hypomethylation can lead to transcriptional activation of normally silent genes, that altered methylation patterns can be somatically replicated with a high but not perfect fidelity, and that mutagens can cause DNA hypomethylation, we propose that DNA hypomethylation followed by de novo methylation represents a plausible mechanism to account not only for the induction of the nontumorigenic variants but for a number of aspects of tumor progression and tumor heterogeneity, as well. In particular, we refer to heritable phenotypic alterations in tumor cell populations which occur at very high frequency but which are not necessarily stable over very long periods of time.