Intracellular signal transduction pathways activated by ceramide and its metabolites

Pharmacol Res. 2003 May;47(5):383-92. doi: 10.1016/s1043-6618(03)00050-1.


The sphingolipid ceramide has proven to be a powerful second-signal effector molecule that regulates diverse cellular processes including apoptosis, cell senescence, the cell cycle, and cellular differentiation. Ceramide has been shown to activate a number of enzymes involved in stress signaling cascades including both protein kinases and protein phosphatases. Ceramide kinase targets include stress-activated protein kinases (SAPKs) such as the jun kinases (JNKs), kinase suppressor of Ras (KSR), and the atypical protein kinase C (PKC) isoform, PKC zeta. Ceramide also is capable of activating protein phosphatases such as protein phosphatase 1 (PP1) and protein phosphatase 2A (PP2A). It is through these protein phosphatases that ceramide can indirectly inhibit kinases that are key components of pro-growth signaling processes such as the classical and novel PKC isoforms and protein kinase B (PKB; also known as Akt). However, the mechanisms how ceramide directly activates enzymes such as JNK and PP2A are still not clear. Elucidation of these mechanisms will reveal how ceramide functions in stress signaling cascades and will provide important information on cellular processes such as apoptosis. It is becoming clear that the ceramide generation is a near universal feature of programmed cell death. It is possible that during at least some apoptotic events, ceramide may be required to activate stress-signal cascades that lead to cell death, while concurrently, suppressing growth and survival pathways in the dying cell. Such a versatile role for ceramide is not unreasonable since ceramide has been implicated as having a role in both intrinsic (i.e. mitochondrial) and extrinsic (i.e. death receptor-mediated) apoptotic pathways. The recent data suggesting that aberrant glycosylation of ceramide (i.e. inactivation of the molecule) may be an important cause of drug resistance in certain cancers suggests that ceramide-mediated signaling cascades are critical components of chemotherapy-induced cell killing. Taken together, these properties of ceramide suggest that this important second-signal molecule may be an important target in anti-neoplastic strategies.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Physiological Phenomena
  • Ceramides / metabolism
  • Ceramides / physiology*
  • Enzymes / metabolism
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Protein Kinases / metabolism*
  • Rats
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*


  • Ceramides
  • Enzymes
  • Protein Kinases