Role of epigenetics in the etiology of germ cell cancer

Yvonne G Van Der Zwan, Hans Stoop, Fernando Rossello, Stefan J White, Leendert H J Looijenga

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


Embryonic development is strictly controlled by functionality of genes in which the existing networks can act both on transcription and translation regulation. Germ cell cancers (GCC) are unique because of a number of characteristics. In spite of their clinical presentation, i.e., predominantly after puberty, they arise from primordial germ cells/gonocytes that have failed appropriate maturation to either pre-spermatogonia or oogonia. GCC mimic embryonal development to a certain extent, including capacity for totipotency. This knowledge has allowed the identification of informative diagnostic markers, including OCT3/4 (POU5F1), SOX2 and SOX17. An additional marker is the overall demethylated status of the genome. Genetic mutations in GCC are rare, which is exceptional for solid cancers. Our hypothesis is that a disturbed epigenetic regulation (through combined interaction of genetic or environmental parameters; referred to as genvironment) affect embryonic germ cell development, resulting in delayed or blocked maturation, and potentially progression to GCC. In this respect, studies of patients with Disorders of Sex Development (DSD) have increased our knowledge significantly. Genvironmental influences can lead to retention of existence of embryonic germ cells, the first step in the pathogenesis of GCC, resulting into the precursor lesions gonadoblastoma or carcinoma in situ. Identification of epigenetic alterations could lead to better understanding these processes and development of specific markers for early detection, eventually leading to development of targeted treatment. This review describes an interactive model related to the role of epigenetics in GCC pathogenesis, focusing on DNA methylation, histone modifications, epigenetic memory and inheritance, as well as environmental factors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)299-308
Number of pages10
JournalThe International journal of developmental biology
Issue number2-4
Publication statusPublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Epigenesis, Genetic/genetics
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neoplasms, Germ Cell and Embryonal/etiology


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