Rapamycin: an anti-cancer immunosuppressant?

Crit Rev Oncol Hematol. 2005 Oct;56(1):47-60. doi: 10.1016/j.critrevonc.2004.09.009.


Rapamycin and its derivatives are promising therapeutic agents with both immunosuppressant and anti-tumor properties. These rapamycin actions are mediated through the specific inhibition of the mTOR protein kinase. mTOR serves as part of an evolutionarily conserved signaling pathway that controls the cell cycle in response to changing nutrient levels. The mTOR signaling network contains a number of tumor suppressor genes including PTEN, LKB1, TSC1, and TSC2, and a number of proto-oncogenes including PI3K, Akt, and eIF4E, and mTOR signaling is constitutively activated in many tumor types. These observations point to mTOR as an ideal target for anti-cancer agents and suggest that rapamycin is such an agent. In fact, early preclinical and clinical studies indicate that rapamycin derivatives have efficacy as anti-tumor agents both alone, and when combined with other modes of therapy. Rapamycin appears to inhibit tumor growth by halting tumor cell proliferation, inducing tumor cell apoptosis, and suppressing tumor angiogenesis. Rapamycin immunosuppressant actions result from the inhibition of T and B cell proliferation through the same mechanisms that rapamycin blocks cancer cell proliferation. Therefore, one might think that rapamycin-induced immunosuppression would be detrimental to the use of rapamycin as an anti-cancer agent. To the contrary, rapamycin decreases the frequency of tumor formation that occurs in organ transplant experiments when combined with the widely used immunosuppressant cyclosporine compared with the tumor incidence observed when cyclosporine is used alone. The available evidence indicates that with respect to tumor growth, rapamycin anti-cancer activities are dominant over rapamycin immunosuppressant effects.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / metabolism
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Cell Cycle / drug effects*
  • Drug Design
  • Drug Synergism
  • Humans
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / metabolism*
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Molecular Chaperones / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / blood supply
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Neovascularization, Pathologic / drug therapy
  • Neovascularization, Pathologic / metabolism
  • Protein Kinases / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects*
  • Sirolimus / metabolism*
  • Sirolimus / therapeutic use
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Immunosuppressive Agents
  • Molecular Chaperones
  • Protein Kinases
  • MTOR protein, human
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • Sirolimus