For many years, cancer has been considered a genetic-driven disease. Recent evidence indicates that epigenetics is equally important. The word “epigenetics” refers to all gene expression changes which are not due to alteration in DNA primary structure (classical mutations). Cancer cells exploit epigenetic mechanisms to silence tumor suppressor genes, or to activate oncogenes. The first epigenetic mechanism linked to cancer was DNA methylation. Non-classical epigenetic mechanisms include histone modifications and non-coding RNAs.
Dr. Francesco Crea’s current project involves a largely overlooked epigenetic mechansism: gene expression regulation by long-non coding RNAs (lncRNAs). Recent evidence indicates that lncRNAs can affect gene expression through several mechanisms, and that some of them are involved in cancer progression. Notably, most lncRnas interact with epigenetic effectors. Dr. Crea’s team is studying the role of those genes in the process of metastatic spreading, with the ultimate goal of developing novel therapies for aggressive tumors. They recently identified a lncRNA which is highly prostate cancer-specific and that could be employed as a future biomarker and therapeutic target.