Metallothioneins in human tumors and potential roles in carcinogenesis

Mutat Res. 2003 Dec 10;533(1-2):201-9. doi: 10.1016/j.mrfmmm.2003.07.013.


Metallothioneins (MT) are a group of low-molecular weight, cysteine rich intracellular proteins, which are encoded by a family of genes containing at least 10 functional isoforms in human. The expression and induction of these proteins have been associated with protection against DNA damage, oxidative stress and apoptosis. Moreover, MT may potentially activate certain transcriptional factors by donating zinc. Although MT is a cytosolic protein in resting cells, it can be translocated transiently to the cell nucleus during cell proliferation and differentiation. A number of studies have shown an increased expression of MT in various human tumors of the breast, colon, kidney, liver, lung, nasopharynx, ovary, prostate, salivary gland, testes, thyroid and urinary bladder. However, MT is down-regulated in certain tumors such as hepatocellular carcinoma and liver adenocarcinoma. Hence, the expression of MT is not universal to all human tumors, but may depend on the differentiation status and proliferative index of tumors, along with other tissue factors and gene mutations. In certain tumors such as germ cell carcinoma, the expression of MT is closely related to the tumor grade and proliferative activity. Increased expression of MT has also been observed in less differentiated tumors. Thus, expression of MT may be a potential prognostic marker for certain tumors. There are few reports on the expression of the different isoforms of MT which have been analyzed by specific gene probes. They reveal that certain isoforms are expressed in specific cell types. The factors which can influence MT induction in human tumors are not yet understood. Down-regulation of MT synthesis in hepatic tumors may be related to hypermethylation of the MT-promoter or mutation of other genes such as the p53 tumor suppressor gene. In vitro studies using human cancer cells suggest a possible role for p53 and the estrogen-receptor on the expression and induction of MT in epithelial neoplastic cells. Some of the evidence supporting a role for MT in both intrinsic and acquired drug resistance is critically evaluated in this review. Since chemoresistance in human tumors is a multifactorial phenomenon, it is difficult to conclude that MT is a more crucial factor than others. Therefore, additional experimental data on MT and its isoforms in human tumors, are needed to elucidate the biological functions of MT during tumor progression, along with other tumor markers.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm
  • Humans
  • Metallothionein / metabolism
  • Metallothionein / physiology*
  • Metals / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Protein Isoforms / metabolism


  • Metals
  • Protein Isoforms
  • Metallothionein