Erythropoietin biology in cancer

Clin Cancer Res. 2006 Jan 15;12(2):332-9. doi: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-05-1771.


Erythropoietin (Epo) has long been known to be the principal hematopoietic growth factor that regulates cellular proliferation and differentiation along the erythroid lineage. Recent studies have shown that Epo is a pleiotropic cytokine that is proangiogenic and exerts broad tissue-protective effects in diverse nonhematopoietic organs. Recombinant Epo (rEpo) has been widely used in the clinic to prevent or treat malignancy-associated anemia. A series of clinical trials have documented the efficacy of rEpo in reducing RBC transfusion requirements and improving quality of life in cancer patients, and a recent meta-analysis suggested a positive effect on survival. However, two randomized trials reported negative outcomes with rEpo, as patients in the rEpo arm fared worse than their placebo-treated counterparts with respect to progression-free survival. The expression of Epo receptor (EpoR) in cancer cells has raised the possibility that exogenous rEpo may exert direct effects on tumor cells associated with the potential for stimulation of proliferation, inhibition of apoptosis, or modulation of sensitivity to chemoradiation therapy. The presence of an autocrine-paracrine Epo-EpoR system in tumors and potential effects of Epo on tumor microenvironment and angiogenesis are consistent with a complex biology for Epo-EpoR signaling in cancer that requires further research. This review describes Epo and EpoR biology, focusing on the pleiotropic effects of Epo on nonhematopoietic tissues as well as the expression and function of EpoR in cancer cells.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Erythropoietin / physiology*
  • Erythropoietin / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Erythropoietin / metabolism
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • Signal Transduction


  • Receptors, Erythropoietin
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • Erythropoietin