Transcriptional silencing by CpG island methylation is a prevalent mechanism of tumor-suppressor gene suppression in cancers. Genetic experiments have defined the importance of the DNA methyltransferase Dnmt1 for the maintenance of methylation in mouse cells and its role in neoplasia. In human bladder cancer cells, selective depletion of DNMT1 with antisense inhibitors has been shown to induce demethylation and reactivation of the silenced tumor-suppressor gene CDKN2A. In contrast, targeted disruption of DNMT1 alleles in HCT116 human colon cancer cells produced clones that retained CpG island methylation and associated tumor-suppressor gene silencing, whereas HCT116 clones with inactivation of both DNMT1 and DNMT3B showed much lower levels of DNA methylation, suggesting that the two enzymes are highly cooperative. We used a combination of genetic (antisense and siRNA) and pharmacologic (5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine) inhibitors of DNA methyl transferases to study the contribution of the DNMT isotypes to cancer-cell methylation. Selective depletion of DNMT1 using either antisense or siRNA resulted in lower cellular maintenance methyltransferase activity, global and gene-specific demethylation and re-expression of tumor-suppressor genes in human cancer cells. Specific depletion of DNMT1 but not DNMT3A or DNMT3B markedly potentiated the ability of 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine to reactivate silenced tumor-suppressor genes, indicating that inhibition of DNMT1 function is the principal means by which 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine reactivates genes. These results indicate that DNMT1 is necessary and sufficient to maintain global methylation and aberrant CpG island methylation in human cancer cells.
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