Head and neck squamous carcinoma (HNSCC) is the sixth most prevalent cancer and one of the most aggressive malignancies worldwide. Despite continuous efforts to identify molecular markers for early detection, and to develop efficient treatments, the overall survival and prognosis of HNSCC patients remain poor. Accumulated scientific evidences suggest that epigenetic alterations, including DNA methylation, histone covalent modifications, chromatin remodeling and non-coding RNAs, are frequently involved in oral carcinogenesis, tumor progression, and resistance to therapy. Epigenetic alterations occur in an unsystematic manner or as part of the aberrant transcriptional machinery, which promotes selective advantage to the tumor cells. Epigenetic modifications also contribute to cellular plasticity during tumor progression and to the formation of cancer stem cells (CSCs), a small subset of tumor cells with self-renewal ability. CSCs are involved in the development of intrinsic or acquired therapy resistance, and tumor recurrences or relapse. Therefore, the understanding and characterization of epigenetic modifications associated with head and neck carcinogenesis, and the prospective identification of epigenetic markers associated with CSCs, hold the promise for novel therapeutic strategies to fight tumors. In this review, we focus on the current knowledge on epigenetic modifications observed in HNSCC and emerging Epi-drugs capable of sensitizing HNSCC to therapy.
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