Aberrant hypermethylation of gene promoters is a major mechanism associated with inactivation of tumor-suppressor genes in cancer. We previously showed this transcriptional silencing to be mediated by both methylation and histone deacetylase activity, with methylation being dominant. Here, we have used cDNA microarray analysis to screen for genes that are epigenetically silenced in human colorectal cancer. By screening over 10, 000 genes, we show that our approach can identify a substantial number of genes with promoter hypermethylation in a given cancer; these are distinct from genes with unmethylated promoters, for which increased expression is produced by histone deacetylase inhibition alone. Many of the hypermethylated genes we identified have high potential for roles in tumorigenesis by virtue of their predicted function and chromosome position. We also identified a group of genes that are preferentially hypermethylated in colorectal cancer and gastric cancer. One of these genes, SFRP1, belongs to a gene family; we show that hypermethylation of four genes in this family occurs very frequently in colorectal cancer, providing for (i) a unique potential mechanism for loss of tumor-suppressor gene function and (ii) construction of a molecular marker panel that could detect virtually all colorectal cancer.
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