Factors affecting the persistence of drug-induced reprogramming of the cancer methylome

Joshua S.K. Bell, Jacob D. Kagey, Benjamin G. Barwick, Bhakti Dwivedi, Michael T. McCabe, Jeanne Kowalski, Paula M. Vertino

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


ABSTRACT: Aberrant DNA methylation is a critical feature of cancer. Epigenetic therapy seeks to reverse these changes to restore normal gene expression. DNA demethylating agents, including 5-aza-2′-deoxycytidine (DAC), are currently used to treat certain leukemias, and can sensitize solid tumors to chemotherapy and immunotherapy. However, it has been difficult to pin the clinical efficacy of these agents to specific demethylation events, and the factors that contribute to the durability of response remain largely unknown. Here we examined the genome-wide kinetics of DAC-induced DNA demethylation and subsequent remethylation after drug withdrawal in breast cancer cells. We find that CpGs differ in both their susceptibility to demethylation and propensity for remethylation after drug removal. DAC-induced demethylation was most apparent at CpGs with higher initial methylation levels and further from CpG islands. Once demethylated, such sites exhibited varied remethylation potentials. The most rapidly remethylating CpGs regained >75% of their starting methylation within a month of drug withdrawal. These sites had higher pretreatment methylation levels, were enriched in gene bodies, marked by H3K36me3, and tended to be methylated in normal breast cells. In contrast, a more resistant class of CpG sites failed to regain even 20% of their initial methylation after 3 months. These sites had lower pretreatment methylation levels, were within or near CpG islands, marked by H3K79me2 or H3K4me2/3, and were overrepresented in sites that become aberrantly hypermethylated in breast cancers. Thus, whereas DAC-induced demethylation affects both endogenous and aberrantly methylated sites, tumor-specific hypermethylation is more slowly regained, even as normal methylation promptly recovers. Taken together, these data suggest that the durability of DAC response is linked to its selective ability to stably reset at least a portion of the cancer methylome.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)273-287
Number of pages15
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2 2016


  • 5-aza-2′deoxycytidine
  • Cancer
  • DNA methylation
  • chromatin
  • epigenetic therapy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Cancer Research


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