Tetracyclines: a pleitropic family of compounds with promising therapeutic properties. Review of the literature

Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2010 Sep;299(3):C539-48. doi: 10.1152/ajpcell.00047.2010. Epub 2010 Jun 30.


There must be something unique about a class of drugs (discovered and developed in the mid-1940s) where there are more than 130 ongoing clinical trials currently listed. Tetracyclines were developed as a result of the screening of soil samples for antibiotic organisms. The first of these compounds chlortetracycline was introduced in 1948. Soon after their development tetracyclines were found to be highly effective against various pathogens including rickettsiae, Gram-positive, and Gram-negative bacteria, thus, becoming a class of broad-spectrum antibiotics. The mechanism of action of tetracyclines is thought to be related to the inhibition of protein synthesis by binding to the 30S bacterial ribosome. Tetracyclines are also an effective anti-malarial drug. Over time, many other "protective" actions have been described for tetracyclines. Minocycline, which can readily cross cell membranes, is known to be a potent anti-apoptotic agent. Its mechanism of action appears to relate to specific effects exerted on apoptosis signaling pathways. Another tetracycline, doxycycline is known to exert antiprotease activities. Doxycycline can inhibit matrix metalloproteinases, which contribute to tissue destruction activities in diseases such as gingivitis. A large body of literature has provided additional evidence for the "beneficial" actions of tetracyclines, including their ability to act as oxygen radical scavengers and anti-inflammatory agents. This increasing volume of published work and ongoing clinical trials supports the notion that a more systematic examination of their possible therapeutic uses is warranted. This review provides a summary of tetracycline's multiple mechanisms of action and while using the effects on the heart as an example, this review also notes their potential to benefit patients suffering from various pathologies such as cancer, Rosacea, and Parkinson's disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anti-Infective Agents / chemistry
  • Anti-Infective Agents / pharmacology
  • Anti-Infective Agents / therapeutic use
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / chemistry
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / pharmacology
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / therapeutic use
  • Apoptosis / drug effects
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Humans
  • Tetracyclines / chemistry
  • Tetracyclines / pharmacology*
  • Tetracyclines / therapeutic use


  • Anti-Infective Agents
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal
  • Tetracyclines