Towards a systemic paradigm in carcinogenesis: linking epigenetics and genetics
Ernesto Burgio • Lucia Migliore
Abstract For at least 30 years cancer has been defined as a genetic disease and explained by the so-called somatic mutation theory (SMT), which has dominated the carci- nogenesis field. Criticism of the SMT has recently greatly increased, although still not enough to force all SMT supporters to recognize its limits. Various researchers point out that cancer appears to be a complex process concerning a whole tissue; and that genomic mutations, although variably deleterious and unpredictably important in deter- mining the establishment of the neoplastic phenotype, are not the primary origin for a malignant neoplasia. We attempt to describe the inadequacies of the SMT and demonstrate that epigenetics is a more logical cause of carcinogenesis. Many previous models of carcinogenesis fall into two classes: (i) in which some biological changes inside cells alone lead to malignancy; and (ii) requiring changes in stroma/extracellular matrix. We try to make clear that in the (ii) model genomic instability is induced by persistent signals coming from the microenvironment, provoking epigenetic and genetic modifications in tissue stem cells that can lead to cancer. In this perspective, stochastic mutations of DNA are a critical by-product rather then the primary cause of cancer. Indirect support for such model of carcinogenesis comes from the in vitro and vivo experiments showing apparent ‘reversion’ of cancer phenotypes obtained via physiological factors of cellular differentiation (cytokines and other signaling molecules) or drugs, even if the key mutations are not ‘reversed’.