Retinoids in cancer treatment

M. S. Tallman*, P. H. Wiernik

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

80 Scopus citations


Since initial studies identifying the important role of vitamin A and its derivatives (retinoids) in maintaining the integrity of epithelial tissues, these compounds have served as paradigms for experimental studies exploring the pharmacologic modification of carcinogenesis. Retinoids have clearly been shown to inhibit chemically induced mammary and urothelial carcinogenesis in experimental animals. Prohibitive toxicity of the parent compound, vitamin A, led to a systematic search for synthetic derivatives with an improved therapeutic index. More than 1500 such compounds have been synthesized, many retaining chemopreventive potential, but with less toxicity. Although several anecdotal reports confirming therapeutic benefits of cis-retinoic acid in patients with acute promyelocytic leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the remarkable studies of Huang and his colleagues in China in 1988 reporting complete remissions in patients with this uncommon variety of acute myelogenous leukemia with the transisomer of retinoic acid (all-trans-retinoic acid) led to a resurgence of interest in the retinoids as differentiating agents for the prevention and therapy of cancer. Furthermore, molecular studies showing DNA rearrangements of the alpha nuclear receptor for retinoic acid located on chromosome 17 in patients with acute promyelocytic leukemia, a disease invariably associated with a translocation between chromosomes 15 and 17, provided a direct connection between an altered nuclear receptor and the development of a human malignancy. The retinoids also may have important beneficial effects in prevention of recurrent malignancies once the primary tumor has been treated, such as in squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck. Because retinoids appear to be less effective in inducing differentiation in nonpromyelocytic leukemia cells, investigators have conducted a number of studies to exploit potential synergism between retinoids and other differentiating agents or biologic effectors. Differentiation therapy and chemoprevention are attractive alternative approaches to intensive cytotoxic chemotherapy. It is now clear that retinoids represent one class of compounds with which it may be possible to reverse the progression of malignant disease and prevent carcinogenesis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)868-888
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Clinical Pharmacology
Issue number10
StatePublished - 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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