Piwis and piwi-interacting RNAs in the epigenetics of cancer



An increasing body of evidence suggests that cancer cells acquire “stem-like” epigenetic and signaling characteristics during the tumorigenic process, including global DNA hypo-methylation, gene-specific DNA hyper-methylation, and small RNA deregulation. RNAs have been known to be epigenetic regulators, both in stem cells and in differentiated cells. A novel class of small RNAs, called piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNAs), maintains genome integrity by epigenetically silencing transposons via DNA methylation, especially in germline stem cells. piRNAs interact exclusively with the Piwi family of proteins. The human Piwi ortholog, Hiwi, has been found to be aberrantly expressed in a variety of human cancers and in some, its expression correlates with poor clinical prognosis. However, there has been little investigation into the potential role that Piwi and piRNAs might play in contributing to the “stem-like” epigenetic state of a cancer. This review will highlight the current evidence supporting the importance of Piwi and piRNAs in the epigenetics of cancer and provide a potential model for the role of Piwi and piRNAs in tumorigenesis. J. Cell. Biochem. 113: 373–380, 2012. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.