The Involvement of Sphingolipids in Multidrug Resistance

J Membr Biol. 2001 Jun 1;181(3):153-62. doi: 10.1007/s00232-001-0033-1.


Administration of most chemotherapeutic agents eventually results in the onset of apoptosis, despite the agents' variety in structure and molecular targets. Ceramide, the central molecule in cellular glycosphingolipid metabolism, has recently been identified as an important mediator of this process. Indeed, one of the events elicited by application of many cytotoxic drugs is an accumulation of this lipid. Treatment failure in cancer chemotherapy is largely attributable to multidrug resistance, in which tumor cells are typically cross-resistant to multiple chemotherapeutic agents. Different cellular mechanisms underlying this phenomenon have been described. Of these the drug efflux pump activity of P-glycoprotein and the multidrug resistance-associated proteins are the most extensively studied examples. Recently, an increased cellular capacity for ceramide glycosylation has been recognized as a novel multidrug resistance mechanism. Indeed, virtually all multidrug-resistant cells exhibit a deviating sphingolipid composition, most typically, increased levels of glucosylceramide. On the other hand, several direct molecular interactions between sphingolipids and drug efflux proteins have been described. Therefore, in addition to a role in the multidrug resistance phenotype by which ceramide accumulation and, thus, the onset of apoptosis are prevented, an indirect role for sphingolipids might be envisaged, by which the activity of these efflux proteins is modulated. In this review, we present an overview of the current understanding of the interesting relations that exist between sphingolipid metabolism and multidrug resistance.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / drug effects
  • Ceramides / metabolism
  • Drug Resistance, Multiple*
  • Drug-Related Side Effects and Adverse Reactions
  • Glucosyltransferases / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Signal Transduction
  • Sphingolipids / chemistry
  • Sphingolipids / metabolism*


  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters
  • Ceramides
  • Sphingolipids
  • Glucosyltransferases
  • ceramide glucosyltransferase