Selenium: a double-edged sword for defense and offence in cancer

Arch Toxicol. 2010 Dec;84(12):919-38. doi: 10.1007/s00204-010-0595-8. Epub 2010 Sep 25.


Selenium (Se) is an essential dietary component for animals including humans and is regarded as a protective agent against cancer. Although the mode of anticancer action of Se is not fully understood yet, several mechanisms, such as antioxidant protection by selenoenzymes, specific inhibition of tumor cell growth by Se metabolites, modulation of cell cycle and apoptosis, and effect on DNA repair have all been proposed. Despite the unsupported results of the last SELECT trial, the cancer-preventing activity of Se was demonstrated in majority of the epidemiological studies. Moreover, recent studies suggest that Se has a potential to be used not only in cancer prevention but also in cancer treatment where in combination with other anticancer drugs or radiation, it can increase efficacy of cancer therapy. In combating cancer cells, Se acts as pro-oxidant rather than antioxidant, inducing apoptosis through the generation of oxidative stress. Thus, the inorganic Se compound, sodium selenite (SeL), due to its prooxidant character, represents a promising alternative for cancer therapy. However, this Se compound is highly toxic compared to organic Se forms. Thus, the unregulated intake of dietary or pharmacological Se supplements mainly in the form of SeL has a potential to expose the body tissues to the toxic levels of Se with subsequent negative consequences on DNA integrity. Hence, due to a broad interest to exploit the positive effects of Se on human health and cancer therapy, studies investigating the negative effects such as toxicity and DNA damage induction resulting from high Se intake are also highly required. Here, we review a role of Se in cancer prevention and cancer therapy, as well as mechanisms underlying Se-induced toxicity and DNA injury. Since Saccharomyces cerevisiae has proven a powerful tool for addressing some important questions regarding Se biology, a part of this review is devoted to this model system.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Antioxidants / pharmacology
  • Apoptosis / drug effects
  • Apoptosis / genetics
  • Cell Cycle / drug effects
  • Cell Cycle / genetics
  • DNA Damage
  • DNA Repair / drug effects
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Oxidative Stress / drug effects
  • Oxidative Stress / genetics
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / pharmacology
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / drug effects
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / genetics
  • Selenium / administration & dosage*
  • Selenium / pharmacology*
  • Selenium / toxicity*
  • Selenium Compounds / pharmacology
  • Sodium Selenite / pharmacology


  • Antioxidants
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Selenium Compounds
  • Selenium
  • Sodium Selenite