Sphingolipids and cancer: ceramide and sphingosine-1-phosphate in the regulation of cell death and drug resistance

Future Oncol. 2010 Oct;6(10):1603-24. doi: 10.2217/fon.10.116.


Sphingolipids have emerged as bioeffector molecules, controlling various aspects of cell growth and proliferation in cancer, which is becoming the deadliest disease in the world. These lipid molecules have also been implicated in the mechanism of action of cancer chemotherapeutics. Ceramide, the central molecule of sphingolipid metabolism, generally mediates antiproliferative responses, such as cell growth inhibition, apoptosis induction, senescence modulation, endoplasmic reticulum stress responses and/or autophagy. Interestingly, recent studies suggest de novo-generated ceramides may have distinct and opposing roles in the promotion/suppression of tumors, and that these activities are based on their fatty acid chain lengths, subcellular localization and/or direct downstream targets. For example, in head and neck cancer cells, ceramide synthase 6/C(16)-ceramide addiction was revealed, and this was associated with increased tumor growth, whereas downregulation of its synthesis resulted in ER stress-induced apoptosis. By contrast, ceramide synthase 1-generated C(18)-ceramide has been shown to suppress tumor growth in various cancer models, both in situ and in vivo. In addition, ceramide metabolism to generate sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P) by sphingosine kinases 1 and 2 mediates, with or without the involvement of G-protein-coupled S1P receptor signaling, prosurvival, angiogenesis, metastasis and/or resistance to drug-induced apoptosis. Importantly, recent findings regarding the mechanisms by which sphingolipid metabolism and signaling regulate tumor growth and progression, such as identifying direct intracellular protein targets of sphingolipids, have been key for the development of new chemotherapeutic strategies. Thus, in this article, we will present conclusions of recent studies that describe opposing roles of de novo-generated ceramides by ceramide synthases and/or S1P in the regulation of cancer pathogenesis, as well as the development of sphingolipid-based cancer therapeutics and drug resistance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ceramides / metabolism*
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Lysophospholipids / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Sphingolipids / metabolism*
  • Sphingosine / analogs & derivatives*
  • Sphingosine / metabolism


  • Ceramides
  • Lysophospholipids
  • Sphingolipids
  • sphingosine 1-phosphate
  • Sphingosine