The selective cytotoxic effect of carotenoids and alpha-tocopherol on human cancer cell lines in vitro

J Oral Maxillofac Surg. 1992 Apr;50(4):367-73; discussion 373-4. doi: 10.1016/0278-2391(92)90400-t.


This study compares the toxic effects of the carotenoids, beta-carotene and canthaxanthin, and alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) on human tumor cells and their normal counterparts in vitro. Seven different malignant cell lines were examined: oral carcinoma (two cell lines), breast (two cell lines), lung carcinoma (two cell lines), and malignant melanoma. The in vitro cell culture assays showed a consistent morphologic change in the affected tumor cells following treatment with carotenoid or vitamin E. A rounding of the tumor cells and eventual lifting off the tissue culture plate were observed. These changes were apparent after 1 to 5 hours of treatment depending on the tumor cell line. Associated with these observable cellular changes were quantitative reductions in proliferation (3H-thymidine proliferation) and succinic dehydrogenase activity (MTT assay). In addition, there was a noticeable change in protein expression, with an increased expression of a 70-kD protein following treatment with beta-carotene. This protein was associated with tumor cells showing a decrease in proliferation (oral carcinoma, malignant melanoma) but not with normal keratinocytes or melanocytes. These studies substantiate a selective cytotoxic effect on human tumor cell growth by carotenoids and alpha-tocopherol in vitro, and may provide an explanation of the therapeutic activity of these agents and their possible use in the treatment of premalignancy or early oral carcinoma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms
  • Canthaxanthin / pharmacology*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / chemistry
  • Carotenoids / pharmacology*
  • Cell Division / drug effects
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Electrophoresis, Polyacrylamide Gel
  • Humans
  • Keratinocytes / drug effects
  • Lung Neoplasms
  • Melanocytes / drug effects
  • Melanoma / chemistry
  • Mouth Neoplasms / chemistry
  • Neoplasm Proteins / analysis
  • Succinate Dehydrogenase / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured / drug effects*
  • Vitamin E / pharmacology*
  • beta Carotene


  • Neoplasm Proteins
  • beta Carotene
  • Vitamin E
  • Carotenoids
  • Canthaxanthin
  • Succinate Dehydrogenase