Effects of a novel DNA methyltransferase inhibitor zebularine on human breast cancer cells

Madhavi Billam, Michele D. Sobolewski, Nancy E. Davidson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

95 Scopus citations


Because DNA methyltransferase (DNMT) inhibitors like azacytidine and decitabine are known to be effective in the clinic for diseases like myelody splastic syndromes that may result in part from transcriptional dysregulation due to epigenetic changes, there is interest in developing novel DNMT inhibitors that would be more effective and less toxic. The effects of one such agent, zebularine, which inhibits DNMT and cytidine deaminase, were assessed in two human breast cancer cell lines, MDAMB-231 and MCF-7. Zebularine treatment inhibited cell growth in a dose and time dependent manner with an IC-50 of ∼100 μM and 150 μM in MDA-MB-231 and MCF-7 cells, respectively, on 96 h exposure. This was associated with increased expression of p21, decreased expression of cyclin-D, and induction of S-phase arrest. At high doses zebularine induced changes in apoptotic proteins in a cell line specific manner manifested by alteration in caspase-3, Bax, Bcl2 and PARP cleavage. Like other DNMT inhibitors, zebularine decreased expression of DNMTs posttranscriptionally as well as expression of other epigenetic regulators like methyl CpG binding proteins and global acetyl H3 and H4 protein levels. Its capacity to reexpress epigenetically silenced genes in human breast cancer cells at low doses was confirmed by its ability to induce expression of estrogen and progesterone receptor mRNA in association with changes suggestive of active chromatin at the ER promoter as evidenced by ChIP. Finally, its effect in combination with other DNMT or HDAC inhibitors like decitabine or vorinostat was explored. The combination of 50 (μM zebularine with decitabine or vorinostat significantly inhibited cell proliferation and colony formation in MDA-MB-231 cells compared with either drug alone. These findings suggest that zebularine is an effective DNMT inhibitor and demethylating agent in human breast cancer cell lines and potentiates the effects of other epigenetic therapeutics like decitabine and vorinostat.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)581-592
Number of pages12
JournalBreast Cancer Research and Treatment
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Breast cancer
  • DNA methyltransferase
  • Epigenetic
  • Estrogen receptor
  • Zebularine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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