DNA methylation of promoter-associated CpG islands may function as an alternate mechanism of silencing tumor suppressor genes in multiple neoplasias including colorectal cancer. De novo methylation of genes appears to be an early and frequent event in most neoplasias. For the ER and IGF2 genes, we have previously shown that methylation actually begins in the normal colon mucosa as an age-related event and progresses to hypermethylation in cancer. In this study, we have determined the frequency of age-related methylation in normal colonic mucosa among the genes hypermethylated in colorectal cancer. We studied six genes, including N33, MYOD, p16, HIC-1, THBS1, and CALCA. The N33 gene showed partial methylation in normal colon mucosa, which was age-related (r = 0.7; P = 0.003 using regression analysis). Adenomas and cancers showed further hypermethylation at this locus. Similarly, the MYOD gene showed age-related methylation in normal colon mucosa (r = 0.7; P < 0.00001 using regression analysis) and hypermethylation in cancers. Age-related methylation seems to be gene specific, because p16, THBS1, HIC-1, and CALCA were not affected. Furthermore, this process may also be modulated by tissue-specific factors. Our study suggests that aging is a major contributing factor to hypermethylation in cancer.

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Supported in part by Colon Cancer Spore Grant CA62924 and National Cancer Institute Grant CA43318. N. A. is supported by NIH Training Grant 1-T32-DK07713. J-P. J. I. is a Kimmel Foundation Scholar.

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