Aberrant epigenetic modifications are an early event in carcinogenesis, with the epigenetic landscape continuing to change during tumor progression and metastasis—these observations suggest that specific epigenetic modifications could be used as diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers for many cancer types. DNA methylation, post-translational histone modifications, and non-coding RNAs are all dysregulated in cancer and are detectable to various degrees in liquid biopsies such as sputum, urine, stool, and blood. Here, we will focus on the application of liquid biopsies, as opposed to tissue biopsies, because of their potential as non-invasive diagnostic tools and possible use in monitoring therapy response and progression to metastatic disease. This includes a discussion of septin-9 (SEPT9
) DNA hypermethylation for detecting colorectal cancer, which is by far the most developed epigenetic biomarker assay. Despite their potential as prognostic and diagnostic biomarkers, technical issues such as inconsistent methodology between studies, overall low yield of epigenetic material in samples, and the need for improved histone and non-coding RNA purification methods are limiting the use of epigenetic biomarkers. Once these technical limitations are overcome, epigenetic biomarkers could be used to monitor cancer development, disease progression, therapeutic response, and recurrence across the entire cancer care continuum.
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