ROS stress in cancer cells and therapeutic implications

Drug Resist Updat. 2004 Apr;7(2):97-110. doi: 10.1016/j.drup.2004.01.004.


Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are constantly generated and eliminated in the biological system, and play important roles in a variety of normal biochemical functions and abnormal pathological processes. Growing evidence suggests that cancer cells exhibit increased intrinsic ROS stress, due in part to oncogenic stimulation, increased metabolic activity, and mitochondrial malfunction. Since the mitochondrial respiratory chain (electron transport complexes) is a major source of ROS generation in the cells, the vulnerability of the mitochondrial DNA to ROS-mediated damage appears to be a mechanism to amplify ROS stress in cancer cells. The escalated ROS generation in cancer cells serves as an endogenous source of DNA-damaging agents that promote genetic instability and development of drug resistance. Malfunction of mitochondria also alters cellular apoptotic response to anticancer agents. Despite the negative impacts of increased ROS in cancer cells, it is possible to exploit this biochemical feature and develop novel therapeutic strategies to preferentially kill cancer cells through ROS-mediated mechanisms. This article reviews ROS stress in cancer cells, its underlying mechanisms and relationship with mitochondrial malfunction and alteration in drug sensitivity, and suggests new therapeutic strategies that take advantage of increased ROS in cancer cells to enhance therapeutic activity and selectivity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis
  • Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms* / metabolism
  • Oxidative Stress*
  • Reactive Oxygen Species* / metabolism
  • Reactive Oxygen Species* / therapeutic use


  • Reactive Oxygen Species