Decision making by p53: life, death and cancer

Cell Death Differ. 2003 Apr;10(4):431-42. doi: 10.1038/sj.cdd.4401183.


The p53 tumor-suppressor plays a critical role in the prevention of human cancer. In the absence of cellular stress, the p53 protein is maintained at low steady-state levels and exerts very little, if any, effect on cell fate. However, in response to various types of stress, p53 becomes activated; this is reflected in elevated protein levels, as well as augmented biochemical capabilities. As a consequence of p53 activation, cells can undergo marked phenotypic changes, ranging from increased DNA repair to senescence and apoptosis. This review deals with the mechanisms that underlie the apoptotic activities of p53, as well as the complex interactions between p53 and central regulatory signaling networks. In p53-mediated apoptosis, the major role is played by the ability of p53 to transactivate specific target genes. The choice of particular subsets of target genes, dictated by covalent p53 modifications and protein-protein interactions, can make the difference between life and apoptotic death of a cell. In addition, transcriptional repression of antiapoptotic genes, as well as transcription-independent activities of p53, can also contribute to the apoptotic effects of p53. Regarding the crosstalk between p53 and signaling networks, this review focuses on the interplay between p53 and two pivotal regulatory proteins: beta-catenin and Akt/PKB. Both proteins can regulate p53 as well as be regulated by it. In addition, p53 interacts with the GSK-3beta kinase, which serves as a link between Akt and beta-catenin. This review discusses how the functional balance between these different interactions might dictate the likelihood of a given cell to become cancerous or be eliminated from the replicative pool, resulting in suppression of cancer.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / genetics*
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / genetics*
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / metabolism
  • Cytoskeletal Proteins / genetics
  • Gene Expression Regulation / genetics*
  • Genes, Regulator / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / genetics
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt
  • Signal Transduction / genetics*
  • Trans-Activators / genetics
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53 / genetics*
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53 / metabolism
  • beta Catenin


  • CTNNB1 protein, human
  • Cytoskeletal Proteins
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins
  • Trans-Activators
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53
  • beta Catenin
  • AKT1 protein, human
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt