Arsenic trioxide sensitivity is associated with low level of glutathione in cancer cells

Br J Cancer. 1999 Nov;81(5):796-9. doi: 10.1038/sj.bjc.6690766.


Arsenic trioxide (As2O3) is a novel anticancer agent, which has been found to induce remission in acute promyelocytic leukaemic patients following daily intravenous administration. The therapeutic value of As2O3 in other cancers is still largely unknown. Cytotoxic tests in a panel of cancer cell lines showed that bladder cancer, acute promyelocytic leukaemic and gastrointestinal cancer cells were the most sensitive to As2O3 among 17 cell lines tested. Cellular glutathione (GSH) system plays an important role in arsenic detoxification in mammalian cells. Cancer cells that were intrinsically sensitive to As2O3 contained lower levels of GSH, whereas resistant cancer cells contained higher levels of GSH. On the other hand, there was no association of glutathione-S-transferase-pi or multidrug resistance-associated protein 1 levels with arsenic sensitivity in these cancer cells. Multidrug-resistant cancer cells that were cross-resistant to arsenic contained higher levels of GSH or multidrug-resistance-associated protein 1 than their drug-sensitive parental cells. Cancer cells become more sensitive to arsenic after depletion of cellular GSH with L-buthionine sulphoximine. We concluded that cellular GSH level is the most important determinant of arsenic sensitivity in cancer cells. Cellular GSH level and its modulation by buthionine sulphoximine should be considered in designing clinical trials using arsenic in solid tumours.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antimetabolites, Antineoplastic / toxicity
  • Antineoplastic Agents / toxicity*
  • Arsenic Trioxide
  • Arsenicals / pharmacology*
  • Buthionine Sulfoximine / toxicity
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / biosynthesis
  • Drug Resistance, Multiple
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm
  • Glutathione / deficiency
  • Glutathione / metabolism*
  • Glutathione S-Transferase pi
  • Glutathione Transferase / biosynthesis
  • Humans
  • Isoenzymes / biosynthesis
  • Multidrug Resistance-Associated Proteins*
  • MutS Homolog 3 Protein
  • Oxides / pharmacology*
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured / drug effects*
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured / metabolism*


  • Antimetabolites, Antineoplastic
  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Arsenicals
  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • Isoenzymes
  • MSH3 protein, human
  • Multidrug Resistance-Associated Proteins
  • MutS Homolog 3 Protein
  • Oxides
  • Buthionine Sulfoximine
  • GSTP1 protein, human
  • Glutathione S-Transferase pi
  • Glutathione Transferase
  • Glutathione
  • Arsenic Trioxide
  • multidrug resistance-associated protein 1