Phenytoin: 80 years young, from epilepsy to breast cancer, a remarkable molecule with multiple modes of action

J Neurol. 2017 Aug;264(8):1617-1621. doi: 10.1007/s00415-017-8391-5. Epub 2017 Jan 12.


In 1908 phenytoin (5,5-diphenylhydantoin) was first synthesized as a barbiturate derivative in Germany by professor Heinrich Biltz (1865-1943) and subsequently resynthesized by an American chemist of the pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis in 1923 in Detroit. Screening phenytoin did not reveal comparable sedative side effects as barbiturates and, thus, Parke-Davis discarded this compound as a useful drug. In 1936, phenytoin's anticonvulsive properties were identified via a new animal model for convulsive disorders, developed by Putnam and Merritt, who also evaluated its clinical value in a number of patients in the period 1937-1940. For many diseases, mechanism of action of phenytoin remains obscure. The voltage-gated sodium channel was and is generally regarded as the main target to explain phenytoin's activity as an anticonvulsant and an anti-arrhythmic drug. This target, however, does not explain many of the other clinical properties of phenytoin. We will explore a number of original articles on phenytoin published in its 80 years history and give extra attention to the various hypothesis and experiments done to elucidate its mechanisms of action. Phenytoin has been explored in over 100 different disorders; the last two promising indications tested in the clinic are breast cancer and optic neuritis. Most probably, there are multiple targets active for these various disorders, and the insight into which targets are relevant is still very incomplete. It is remarkable that many pharmacological studies tested one dose only, mostly 50 or 100 μM, doses which most probably are higher than the non-plasma bound phenytoin plasma levels obtained during treatment.

Keywords: History; Mechanism of action; Neuropathic pain; Phenytoin; Sodium channels.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anticonvulsants / history
  • Anticonvulsants / pharmacology*
  • Anticonvulsants / therapeutic use*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / history
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Drug Discovery / history
  • Epilepsy / drug therapy
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Phenytoin / history
  • Phenytoin / pharmacology*
  • Phenytoin / therapeutic use*


  • Anticonvulsants
  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Phenytoin