NMDA receptors on the surface of cancer cells: target for chemotherapy?

Biomed Pharmacother. 2014 May;68(4):493-6. doi: 10.1016/j.biopha.2014.03.012. Epub 2014 Mar 27.


The mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), a serine/threonine kinase, is a therapeutic target for many types of cancers. NMDA receptors regulate mTOR signalling activity; their inappropriate expression on several human cancer cell lines represents a potential therapeutic avenue to control dysregulated growth, division and invasiveness. Targeting these receptors with selective ligands (e.g., glycineB site ligands) may be a less toxic and more tolerable approach than administering compounds acting at the mTORC1 complex itself, such as rapamycin and its derivatives. Thus, testing glycineB site ligands in relevant in vitro and in vivo paradigms with established human cancer cells that express NMDA receptors on their surface could provide proofs of concept/principle that would encourage exploration of these and other "non-toxic" strategies. Interestingly, in some cancer models that express NMDA receptors on their surface, NMDA receptor antagonists, such as MK-801 (dizocilpine), were shown to possess anti-proliferative and anti-invasive effects, which conflict with hypotheses about promoting NMDA receptor activation as a cancer chemotherapeutic strategy. Whether NMDA receptor activation or antagonism is associated with anti-proliferative and anti-invasive effects may reflect differences between cancer cell lines in terms of the proteins associated with the NMDA receptors on their cell surfaces, which, in turn, could lead to different "downstream" effects on cascades of intracellular phosphorylations. Irrespective of whether activation or antagonism is associated with anti-proliferative and anti-invasive effects for specific types of cancer, data are emerging that support exploration of targeting NMDA receptors expressed on the surface of cancer cells as a therapeutic strategy.

Keywords: Cancer; Chemotherapy; NMDA receptor; mTOR.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / adverse effects
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Phosphorylation / drug effects
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / drug effects
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases / metabolism


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Ligands
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • MTOR protein, human
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases