A causal relationship between unscheduled eicosanoid signaling and tumor development: cancer chemoprevention by inhibitors of arachidonic acid metabolism

Toxicology. 2000 Nov 16;153(1-3):11-26. doi: 10.1016/s0300-483x(00)00301-2.


Cancer results from disturbances of cellular signal transduction and data processing at the genetic and epigenetic level. In the early phase of the disease these disturbances are mainly caused by environmental toxic agents, i.e. genotoxic and non-genotoxic carcinogens, whereas endogenous agents derived from dys-regulated metabolic reactions may take over this role at later stages, thereby leading to a state of 'genetic instability' and 'growth autonomy'. Among these metabolic reactions becoming dys-regulated in the course of tumorigenesis, eicosanoid biosynthesis from arachidonic acid seems to play a particular role. A steadily increasing body of evidence indicates a causal relationship between cancer development and an abnormal overexpression of eicosanoid-forming enzymes, i.e. cyclooxygenases and lipoxygenases, in a wide variety of human and animal tumors. This overexpression seems to result from disturbances of cellular signaling cascades such as the Ras-Raf-MAPkinase cascade due to oncogenic gene mutations. Presently, research is focussed on the proinflammatory enzyme cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) the pathological overexpression of which has been found to be related to key events of tumor promotion such as cellular hyperproliferation, inhibition of programmed cell death, and tumor angiogenesis. In the mouse skin model of multistage carcinogenesis COX-2-derived prostaglandin F(2alpha) has been indentified as an endogenous tumor promoter. Moreover, genotoxic byproducts of both cylooxygenase and lipoxygenase-catalyzed arachidonic acid metabolism (such as active oxygen species, free radicals etc.) are suspected to contribute to 'genetic instability' and thus to malignant progression of tumor cells. The enzymes of eicosanoid biosynthesis rank therefore among the most attractive targets for cancer chernoprevention. In fact, both nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs, i.e. non-specific COX inhibitors, and isozyme-specific COX-2 inhibitors have been shown to inhibit experimental and human cancer development, in the latter case in particular in the large bowel. Beside their role as indicators of neoplastic development eicosanoids may be also used as reporters of skin irritation. Based to this concept an in vitro test system for skin toxicity has been developed in which the release of arachidonic acid and interleukin-1alpha, i.e. two key mediators of acute inflammation, from a human keratinocyte cell line is measured. The excellent correlation found between this mediator release and the effects of various chemical irritants on human skin in vivo indicates that, in the near future, this and related methods may help to do without animal experiments in toxicological testing.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arachidonic Acid / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Arachidonic Acid / metabolism*
  • Cyclooxygenase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Eicosanoids / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Prostaglandin-Endoperoxide Synthases / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*


  • Cyclooxygenase Inhibitors
  • Eicosanoids
  • Arachidonic Acid
  • Prostaglandin-Endoperoxide Synthases