De novo methylation of CpG islands is a rare event in mammalian cells. It has been observed in the course of developmental processes, such as X chromosome inactivation and genomic imprinting. The methylation of DNA, an important factor in the epigenetic control of gene expression, may also be involved in tumorigenesis. After the t(9;22) chromosomal translocation and generation of the Philadelphia chromosome, the initiating event in chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), most of the abl coding sequence is fused to the 5' region of the bcr gene. Expression of the hybrid bcr-abl gene is, therefore, regulated by the bcr promoter. In most cases of CML, one of the two abl promoters (Pa) is nested within the bcr-abl transcriptional unit and should be able to transcribe the type Ia 6-kb normal abl mRNA from the Philadelphia chromosome. However, we have found that the 6-kb transcript is present only in CML cell lines containing a normal abl allele and that the apparent inactivation of the nested Pa promoter is associated with allele-specific methylation. Furthermore, we have noticed that the Pa promoter is contained within a CpG island and undergoes progressive de novo methylation in the course of the disease. This is attested to by the fact that DNA samples from CML patients that are methylation-free at the time of diagnosis invariably become methylated in advanced CML. Since tumor progression in CML cannot always be inferred from the clinical presentation, assessment of de novo CpG methylation may prove to be of critical value in management of the disease. It could herald blastic transformation at a stage when bone marrow transplantation, the only potentially curative therapeutic procedure in CML, is still effective
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