Beta-carotene: a cancer chemopreventive agent or a co-carcinogen?

Mutat Res. 2003 Jun;543(3):195-200. doi: 10.1016/s1383-5742(03)00002-4.


Evidence from both epidemiological and experimental observations have fueled the belief that the high consumption of fruits and vegetables rich in carotenoids may help prevent cancer and heart disease in humans. Because of its well-documented antioxidant and antigenotoxic properties, the carotenoid beta-carotene (betaCT) gained most of the attention in the early 1980s and became one of the most extensively studied cancer chemopreventive agents in population-based trials supported by the National Cancer Institute. However, the results of three randomized lung cancer chemoprevention trials on betaCT supplementation unexpectedly contradicted the large body of epidemiological evidence relating to the potential benefits of dietary carotenoids. Not only did betaCT show no benefit, it was associated with significant increases in lung cancer incidence, cardiovascular diseases, and total mortality. These findings aroused widespread scientific debate that is still ongoing. It also raised the suspicion that betaCT may even possess co-carcinogenic properties. In this review, we summarize the current data on the co-carcinogenic properties of betaCT that is attributed to its role in the induction of carcinogen metabolizing enzymes and the over-generation of oxidative stress. The data presented provide convincing evidence of the harmful properties of this compound if given alone to smokers, or to individuals exposed to environmental carcinogens, as a micronutrient supplement. This has now been directly verified in a medium-term cancer transformation bioassay. In the context of public health policies, while the benefits of a diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables should continue to be emphasized, the data presented here point to the need for consideration of the possible detrimental effects of certain isolated dietary supplements, before mass cancer chemoprevention clinical trials are conducted on human subjects. This is especially important for genetically predisposed individuals who are environmentally or occupationally exposed to mutagens and carcinogens, such as those found in tobacco smoke and in industrial settings.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Benzo(a)pyrene / metabolism
  • Carcinogens / pharmacology*
  • Cocarcinogenesis
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System / biosynthesis
  • Humans
  • Nicotiana / adverse effects
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Smoke / adverse effects
  • beta Carotene / pharmacology*


  • Anticarcinogenic Agents
  • Carcinogens
  • Smoke
  • beta Carotene
  • Benzo(a)pyrene
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System