Role of antimetabolites of purine and pyrimidine nucleotide metabolism in tumor cell differentiation

Biochem Pharmacol. 1999 Aug 15;58(4):539-55. doi: 10.1016/s0006-2952(99)00035-0.


Transformed cells are characterized by imbalances in metabolic routes. In particular, different key enzymes of nucleotide metabolism and DNA biosynthesis, such as CTP synthetase, thymidylate synthase, dihydrofolate reductase, IMP dehydrogenase, ribonucleotide reductase, DNA polymerase, and DNA methyltransferase, are markedly up-regulated in certain tumor cells. Together with the concomitant down-modulation of the purine and pyrimidine degradation enzymes, the increased anabolic propensity supports the excessive proliferation of transformed cells. However, many types of cancer cells have maintained the ability to differentiate terminally into mature, non-proliferating cells not only in response to physiological receptor ligands, such as retinoic acid, vitamin D metabolites, and cytokines, but also following exposure to a wide variety of non-physiological agents such as antimetabolites. Interestingly, induction of tumor cell differentiation is often associated with reversal of the transformation-related enzyme deregulations. An important class of differentiating compounds comprises the antimetabolites of purine and pyrimidine nucleotide metabolism and nucleic acid synthesis, the majority being structural analogs of natural nucleosides. The CTP synthetase inhibitors cyclopentenylcytosine and 3-deazauridine, the thymidylate synthase inhibitor 5-fluoro-2'-deoxyuridine, the dihydrofolate reductase inhibitor methotrexate, the IMP dehydrogenase inhibitors tiazofurin, ribavirin, 5-ethynyl-1-beta-D-ribofuranosylimidazole-4-carboxamide (EICAR) and mycophenolic acid, the ribonucleotide reductase inhibitors hydroxyurea and deferoxamine, and the DNA polymerase inhibitors ara-C, 9-(2-phosphonylmethoxyethyl)adenine (PMEA), and aphidicolin, as well as several nucleoside analogs perturbing the DNA methylation pattern, have been found to induce tumor cell differentiation through impairment of DNA synthesis and/or function. Thus, by selectively targeting those anabolic enzymes that contribute to the neoplastic behavior of cancer cells, the normal cellular differentiation program may be reactivated and the malignant phenotype suppressed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antimetabolites / pharmacology*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Cell Differentiation / drug effects
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Neoplasms / therapy
  • Purine Nucleotides / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Purine Nucleotides / biosynthesis
  • Purine Nucleotides / metabolism*
  • Pyrimidine Nucleotides / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Pyrimidine Nucleotides / biosynthesis
  • Pyrimidine Nucleotides / metabolism*


  • Antimetabolites
  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Purine Nucleotides
  • Pyrimidine Nucleotides