Genomic imprinting is the phenomenon by which individual alleles of certain genes are expressed differentially according to their parent of origin. The alleles appear to be differentially marked during gametogenesis or during the early part of development. This mark is heritable but reversible from generation to generation, implying a stable epigenetic modification. Approximately 25 imprinted genes have been identified to date, and dysregulation of a number of these has been implicated in tumour development. The normal physiological role of many imprinted genes is in the control of cell proliferation and fetal growth, indicating potential mechanisms of action in tumour formation. Both dominant and recessive modes of action have been postulated for the role of imprinted genes in neoplasia, as a result of effective gene dosage alterations by epigenetic modification of the normal pattern of allele specific transcription. The aim of this review is to assess the importance of imprinted genes in generating tumours and to discuss the implications for novel mechanisms of transforming mutation.
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