Retinoids in cancer therapy and chemoprevention: promise meets resistance

Oncogene. 2003 Oct 20;22(47):7305-15. doi: 10.1038/sj.onc.1206936.


Retinoids (natural and synthetic derivatives of vitamin A) signal potent differentiation and growth-suppressive effects in diverse normal, premalignant, and malignant cells. A strong rationale exists for the use of retinoids in cancer treatment and chemoprevention based on preclinical, epidemiological, and early clinical findings. Despite the success of all-trans-retinoic acid (RA)-based differentiation therapy in acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), the broad promise of retinoids in the clinic has not yet been realized. In addition to the expected limited activity of any single therapeutic agent, translation of retinoid activities from the laboratory to the clinic has met with intrinsic or acquired retinoid resistance. Evidence suggests that solid tumors develop intrinsic resistance to retinoids during carcinogenesis. In contrast, relapse of APL is often associated with acquired resistance to retinoid maturation induction. This review discusses what is known about retinoid resistance mechanisms in cancer therapy and chemoprevention. Strategies to overcome this resistance will be discussed, including combination therapy with other differentiation-inducing, cytotoxic or chromatin-remodeling agents, as well as the use of receptor-selective and nonclassical retinoids. Opportunities exist in the post-genomic era to bypass resistance to classical retinoids by identifying target genes and associated pathways that directly mediate the antineoplastic effects of retinoids. In this regard, the retinoids are useful pharmacological tools to reveal important pathways targeted in cancer therapy and chemoprevention.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm*
  • Humans
  • Leukemia, Promyelocytic, Acute / drug therapy
  • Leukemia, Promyelocytic, Acute / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Receptors, Retinoic Acid / genetics
  • Receptors, Retinoic Acid / metabolism
  • Retinoids / metabolism
  • Retinoids / pharmacology
  • Retinoids / therapeutic use*
  • Tumor Suppressor Proteins / genetics
  • Tumor Suppressor Proteins / metabolism


  • Receptors, Retinoic Acid
  • Retinoids
  • Tumor Suppressor Proteins