Low concentrations of paclitaxel induce cell type-dependent p53, p21 and G1/G2 arrest instead of mitotic arrest: molecular determinants of paclitaxel-induced cytotoxicity

Oncogene. 2001 Jun 28;20(29):3806-13. doi: 10.1038/sj.onc.1204487.


Paclitaxel (PTX), a microtubule-active agent, blocks cell proliferation by inhibiting mitotic progression leading to mitotic and postmitotic arrest and cell death. Here we demonstrate for the first time that very low concentrations of PTX (3-6 nM) can completely inhibit cell proliferation without arresting cells at mitosis. At these low concentrations that are insufficient to inhibit mitotic progression, PTX induced both p53 and p21 causing G1 and G2 arrest in A549. In contrast, low PTX concentrations failed to induce G1 and G2 arrest in A549/E6 cells, that do not express p53. Furthermore, we observed that the levels of p53 and p21 induced by adriamycin and by low concentrations of PTX in A549 cells were comparable. This observation led us to conclude that low concentrations of PTX can induce p53 and p21 sufficiently to cause G1 and G2. Many other cell lines, including HCT116 cells, do not readily upregulate p53 in response to PTX, and therefore undergo exclusively mitotic and postmitotic arrest after PTX treatment. At low concentrations that do not cause mitotic arrest, PTX did not significantly inhibit proliferation of these cells. In HCT116 cells, loss of p53 (HCT/p53(-/-)) or p21 (HCT/p21(-/-)) affects both Bax and Bcl-2 expression. In cells lacking p53, levels of Bax and p21 were decreased. In cells lacking p21, levels of wt p53 were highly increased to compensate for the loss of p21. This in turn results in upregulation of Bax and downregulation of Bcl-2 resulting in an increase of the apoptotic Bax/Bcl2 ratio consistent with increased sensitivity of these cells to apoptotic stimuli. High levels of p53 and Bax/Bcl-2 ratio can also explain why loss of p21 is rarely found in human cancer.

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic / pharmacology*
  • Cell Division / drug effects
  • Cell Line, Transformed
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinase Inhibitor p21
  • Cyclins / metabolism*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • G1 Phase
  • G2 Phase
  • Growth Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Interphase
  • Mitosis / drug effects*
  • Mitosis / physiology
  • Paclitaxel / pharmacology*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / metabolism
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / metabolism
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53 / metabolism*
  • bcl-2-Associated X Protein


  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic
  • BAX protein, human
  • CDKN1A protein, human
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinase Inhibitor p21
  • Cyclins
  • Growth Inhibitors
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53
  • bcl-2-Associated X Protein
  • Paclitaxel