Polyamines: from molecular biology to clinical applications

Ann Med. 1991 Aug;23(3):241-59. doi: 10.3109/07853899109148056.


The polyamines putrescine, spermidine and spermine represent a group of naturally occurring compounds exerting a bewildering number of biological effects, yet despite several decades of intensive research work, their exact physiological function remains obscure. Chemically these compounds are organic aliphatic cations with two (putrescine), three (spermidine) or four (spermine) amino or amino groups that are fully protonated at physiological pH values. Early studies showed that the polyamines are closely connected to the proliferation of animal cells. Their biosynthesis is accomplished by a concerted action of four different enzymes: ornithine decarboxylase, adenosylmethionine decarboxylase, spermidine synthase and spermine synthase. Out of these four enzyme, the two decarboxylases represent unique mammalian enzymes with an extremely short half life and dramatic inducibility in response to growth promoting stimuli. The regulation of ornithine decarboxylase, and to some extent also that of adenosylmethionine decarboxylase, is complex, showing features that do not always fit into the generally accepted rules of molecular biology. The development and introduction of specific inhibitors to the biosynthetic enzymes of the polyamines have revealed that an undisturbed synthesis of the polyamines is a prerequisite for animal cell proliferation to occur. The biosynthesis of the polyamines thus offers a meaningful target for the treatment of certain hyperproliferative diseases, most notably cancer. Although most experimental cancer models responds strikingly to treatment with polyamine antimetabolites--namely, inhibitors of various polyamine synthesizing enzymes--a real breakthrough in the treatment of human cancer has not yet occurred. It is, however, highly likely that the concept is viable. An especially interesting approach is the chemoprevention of cancer with polyamine antimetabolites, a process that appears to work in many experimental animal models. Meanwhile, the inhibition of polyamine accumulation has shown great promise in the treatment of human parasitic diseases, such as African trypanosomiasis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adenosylmethionine Decarboxylase / physiology
  • Animals
  • Biogenic Polyamines* / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Biogenic Polyamines* / chemistry
  • Biogenic Polyamines* / physiology
  • Cell Division / physiology
  • Eflornithine / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Mitoguazone / therapeutic use
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Ornithine Decarboxylase / physiology
  • Ornithine Decarboxylase Inhibitors


  • Biogenic Polyamines
  • Ornithine Decarboxylase Inhibitors
  • Ornithine Decarboxylase
  • Adenosylmethionine Decarboxylase
  • Mitoguazone
  • Eflornithine