The erythropoietin receptor and its expression in tumor cells and other tissues

Oncologist. 2004;9 Suppl 5:18-30. doi: 10.1634/theoncologist.9-90005-18.


Erythropoietin (EPO) is the primary regulator of erythropoiesis, stimulating growth, preventing apoptosis, and promoting differentiation of red blood cell progenitors. The EPO receptor belongs to the cytokine receptor superfamily. Although the primary role of EPO is the regulation of red blood cell production, EPO and its receptor have been localized to several nonhematopoietic tissues and cells, including the central nervous system (CNS), endothelial cells, solid tumors, the liver, and the uterus. The presence of EPO receptors and the possibility of EPO signaling in these tissues and cells have led to numerous studies of the effects of EPO at these sites. In particular, expression of EPO and the EPO receptor in cancer cells has generated much interest because of concern that administration of recombinant human erythropoietin (rHuEPO) to patients with breast and other cancer cells expressing the EPO receptor may promote tumor growth via the induction of cell proliferation or angiogenesis. However, evidence supporting a growth-promoting effect has been inconclusive. Moreover, several preclinical studies have shown a beneficial effect of EPO on delaying tumor growth. Further, it is conceivable that increased expression of EPO could reduce tumor hypoxia and ameliorate the deleterious effects of hypoxia on tumor growth, metastasis, and treatment resistance. On the other hand, EPO has also been shown to produce an angiogenic effect in vascular endothelial cells in vitro. However, there is no evidence that these effects occur in vivo to promote tumor growth. EPO and EPO receptors are expressed in neural tissue, and they are upregulated there by hypoxia. Animal studies have shown that administration of epoetin alfa (an rHuEPO) reduces tissue injury due to ischemic stroke, blunt trauma, and experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis. These findings suggest that epoetin alfa may provide a therapeutic benefit in patients with stroke, trauma, epilepsy, and other CNS-related disorders. Clearly, further study of EPO and the EPO receptor in nonhematopoietic tissue is warranted to determine the potential therapeutic usefulness of rHuEPO as well as to determine the signaling pathway responsible for its effect in vivo.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cell Hypoxia*
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology*
  • Neovascularization, Pathologic
  • Receptors, Erythropoietin / biosynthesis*
  • Receptors, Erythropoietin / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction


  • Receptors, Erythropoietin