Nickel is a naturally occurring element found in the Earth’s crust and an International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)-classified human carcinogen. While low levels found in the natural environment pose a minor concern, the extensive use of nickel in industrial settings such as in the production of stainless steel and various alloys complicate human exposure and health effects. Notably, interactions with nickel macromolecules, primarily through inhalation, have been demonstrated to promote lung cancer. Mechanisms of nickel-carcinogenesis range from oxidative stress, DNA damage, and hypoxia-inducible pathways to epigenetic mechanisms. Recently, non-coding RNAs have drawn increased attention in cancer mechanistic studies. Specifically, nickel has been found to disrupt expression and functions of micro-RNAs and long-non-coding RNAs, resulting in subsequent changes in target gene expression levels, some of which include key cancer genes such as p53, MDM2, c-myc, and AP-1. Non-coding RNAs are also involved in well-studied mechanisms of nickel-induced lung carcinogenesis, such as the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) pathway, oxidative stress, DNA damage and repair, DNA hypermethylation, and alterations in tumor suppressors and oncogenes. This review provides a summary of the currently known epigenetic mechanisms involved in nickel-induced lung carcinogenesis, with a particular focus on non-coding RNAs.
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