The human genome contains 19 putatively functional aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) genes, which encode enzymes critical for detoxification of endogenous and exogenous aldehyde substrates through NAD(P)+-dependent oxidation. ALDH1 has three main isotypes, ALDH1A1, ALDH1A2, and ALDH1A3, and is a marker of normal tissue stem cells (SC) and cancer stem cells (CSC), where it is involved in self-renewal, differentiation and self-protection. Experiments with murine and human cells indicate that ALDH1 activity, predominantly attributed to isotype ALDH1A1, is tissue- and cancer-specific. High ALDH1 activity and ALDH1A1 overexpression are associated with poor cancer prognosis, though high ALDH1 and ALDH1A1 levels do not always correlate with highly malignant phenotypes and poor clinical outcome. In cancer therapy, ALDH1A1 provides a useful therapeutic CSC target in tissue types that normally do not express high levels of ALDH1A1, including breast, lung, esophagus, colon and stomach. Here we review the functions and mechanisms of ALDH1A1, the key ALDH isozyme linked to SC populations and an important contributor to CSC function in cancers, and we outline its potential in future anticancer strategies.
Keywords: ALDH; ALDH1A1; aldehyde dehydrogenase; cancer; stem cell.