Mechanism of fenretinide (4-HPR)-induced cell death

Apoptosis. 2001 Oct;6(5):377-88. doi: 10.1023/a:1011342220621.


4-HPR (fenretinide) is a synthetic analog of retinoic acid (RA) whose potential as a chemopreventative agent has gained support from in vitro and animal experiments and in limited clinical trials. Comparative analyses of cellular, biochemical, and molecular properties of fenretinide with RA using various tissue culture cells reveal that a key distinction between these two retinoids lies in the ability of fenretinide to induce programmed cell death, also known as apoptosis. Here we review the composite evidence for induction of apoptosis in fenretinide-treated cells. Assays used to validate apoptosis in various cell types are also summarized. Apoptosis in response to fenretinide primarily occurs by a receptor-independent mechanism, which is accompanied by increases in signaling molecules, e.g., ceramide, and cysteine-dependent aspartate-directed proteases, termed caspases, including execution caspase-3. Both caspase-3 inhibitor DEVD-CHO and ceramide synthase inhibitor fumonisin B(1) (FB(1)) block fenretinide-induced apoptosis. Increase in caspase-3 appears to result from fenretinide-elicited stabilization of procaspase-3 zymogen. We also review apoptotic regulatory proteins such as inhibitor of apoptosis (IAPs) and second mitochondria-derived activator of caspase (SMACs) that participate in the coordinate control of caspase activities. The existence of a large number of proteins capable of modulating apoptosis via activation or inhibition of caspases, coupled with the fact that both the initiation and execution phases of apoptosis utilize pre-existing zymogens, which, once set in motion, culminates in an irreversible apoptotic cascade, raise the possibility that the on/off switch of apoptosis is linked to an intricate intracellular regulatory network, capable of responding to external stimuli such as fenretinide. This network functions to provide checks/balances of the need for apoptosis as well as to minimize and prevent untimely errors in apoptosis. We suggest that dynamic and coordinated regulation of apoptosis by such a hypothetical network in vivo may involve co-localization of pro- and anti-apoptotic proteins and their respective activators/inhibitors in a macromolecular modular unit which we propose to be named caspasomes. Fenretinide also induces apoptosis by elevating reactive oxygen species (ROS), unrelated to changes in ceramide-caspases. Thus multiple, distinct pathways contribute to the induction of apoptosis by fenretinide.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Apoptosis*
  • Caspases / metabolism
  • Cell Cycle
  • Fenretinide / pharmacology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Receptors, Retinoic Acid / physiology
  • Signal Transduction


  • Anticarcinogenic Agents
  • Receptors, Retinoic Acid
  • Fenretinide
  • Caspases