Background: Epigenetic alterations comprise key regulatory events that dynamically alter gene expression and their deregulation is commonly linked to the pathogenesis of various diseases, including cancer. Unlike DNA mutations, epigenetic alterations involve modifications to proteins and nucleic acids that regulate chromatin structure without affecting the underlying DNA sequence, altering the accessibility of the transcriptional machinery to the DNA, thus modulating gene expression. In cancer cells, this often involves the silencing of tumor suppressor genes or the increased expression of genes involved in oncogenesis. Advances in laboratory medicine have made it possible to map critical epigenetic events, including histone modifications and DNA methylation, on a genome-wide scale. Like the identification of genetic mutations, mapping of changes to the epigenetic landscape has increased our understanding of cancer progression. However, in contrast to irreversible genetic mutations, epigenetic modifications are flexible and dynamic, thereby making them a promising therapeutic target. Ongoing studies are evaluating the use of epigenetic drugs in chemotherapy sensitization and immune system modulation. With the preclinical success of drugs that modify epigenetics, along with the FDA approval of epigenetic drugs including the DNA methyltransferase 1 (DNMT1) inhibitor 5-azacitidine and the histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor vorinostat, there has been a rise in the number of drugs that target epigenetic modulators over recent years.
Conclusion: We provide an overview of epigenetic modulations; particularly those involved in cancer, and discuss the recent advances in drug development that target these chromatin-modifying events, primarily focusing on novel strategies to regulate the epigenome.