Positive results from first epigenetic drugs for leukemia

More than 400 researchers participated in the first 'Barcelona Conference on Epigenetics and Cancer' held by B·Debate and the IMPPC. The next edition, in 2014, will be organized by Idibell

Marcus Buschbeck (IMPPC), Enric Banda ("la Caixa"), Montserrat Vendrell (Biocat) and Manuel Perucho (IMPPC).


For two days, Barcelona has been the capital of epigenetics and cancer research. More than 400 researchers from around the world participated in the Barcelona Conference on Epigenetics and Cancer: Challenges, Opportunities and Perspectives held by B·Debate and the Institute of Predictive and Personalized Medicine of Cancer (IMPPC) on 21 and 22 November, discussing the possibilities of exploiting knowledge in this field to develop new cancer treatments.


Epigenetic changes can be caused by many external factors, like the environment, age or eating habits. These factors can cause changes in the chromatin, which is the combination of DNA and proteins found in the nucleus of cells and that make up their chromosomes. Some of these changes are caused by the addition or loss of the chemical group methyl, known as methylation or demethylation. Dr. Manuel Perucho, co-scientific leader of this B·Debate, gives the example of colon cancer, which is one of the types that causes the most deaths, where it has been seen that higher demethylation levels lead to higher relapse rates.

Many enzymes that can modify the chromatin have already been identified and characterized. The challenge now is to take advantage of this knowledge to create new tools to help improve prediction of a person’s risk of suffering from cancer, diagnosis and the use of prognostic markers, and selection of the most effective therapy.

Epigenetic treatments for cancer

Preliminary results show that it is fitting and feasible to generate tools based on epigenetic knowledge. Chromatin alterations have already been shown to be valuable diagnostic markers but need further development for use as clinical tests. The first rationally designed cancer drugs have begun to yield results in recent years. Well-known cases include Herceptin for breast cancer and Gleevec for some hematological neoplasms. According to Dr. Marcus Buschbeck, co-scientific leader of this B·Debate, the first drugs that interfere with chromatin-modifying enzymes to treat leukemia are yielding positive results.

Recent research shows that, in some cases, cancer initially caused by a DNA mutation has an increased probability of leading to metastasis as a result of induced epigenetic changes. In this scenario, a genetic mutation initiates the cancer but epigenetic changes promote its progression. According to Dr. Andrew Feinberg, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Epigenetics and former advisor to Barack Obama on science, epigenetic deregulation can be a clear indicator that cancer will appear in the future.

Field study of epigenetic therapy can, in the future, allow for treatment of more types of cancer and help prevent progression of this disease. The human genome project has turned out to be only the beginning of the quest to understand the molecular model of life. Current study is now also focusing on the epigenome.

New conference in 2014 in Barcelona

The Barcelona Conference on Epigenetics and Cancer: Challenges, Opportunities and Perspectives is the first in a series of conferences that will take place in Barcelona over the coming five years and aspire to become an international benchmark in this field. The 2014 edition, organized by the Cancer Epigenetics and Biology Program (PEBC) at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (Idibell), will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the discovery of acetylation as the first histone modification.