Human antimicrobial peptides and cancer

Semin Cell Dev Biol. 2019 Apr;88:156-162. doi: 10.1016/j.semcdb.2018.04.006. Epub 2018 May 31.


Antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) have long been a topic of interest for entomologists, biologists, immunologists and clinicians because of these agents' intriguing origins in insects, their ubiquitous expression in many life forms, their capacity to kill a wide range of bacteria, fungi and viruses, their role in innate immunity as microbicidal and immunoregulatory agents that orchestrate cross-talk with the adaptive immune system, and, most recently, their association with cancer. We and others have theorized that surveillance through epithelial cell-derived AMPs functions to keep the natural flora of microorganisms in a steady state in different niches such as the skin, the intestines, and the mouth. More recently, findings related to specific activation pathways of some of these AMPs have led investigators to associate them with pro-tumoral activity; i.e., contributing to a tumorigenic microenvironment. This area is still in its infancy as there are intriguing yet contradictory findings demonstrating that while some AMPs have anti-tumoral activity and are under-expressed in solid tumors, others are overexpressed and pro-tumorigenic. This review will introduce a new paradigm in cancer biology as it relates to AMP activity in neoplasia to address the following questions: Is there evidence that AMPs contribute to tumor promoting microenvironments? Can an anti-AMP strategy be of use in cancer therapy? Do AMPs, expressed in and released from tumors, contribute to compositional shifting of bacteria in cancerous lesions? Can specific AMP expression characteristics be used one day as early warning signs for solid tumors?

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / immunology*
  • Carcinogenesis / genetics
  • Carcinogenesis / immunology*
  • Carcinogenesis / pathology
  • Carcinogens / analysis
  • Cathelicidins / genetics
  • Cathelicidins / immunology*
  • Defensins / genetics
  • Defensins / immunology*
  • Gene Expression
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Tumor Microenvironment / genetics
  • Tumor Microenvironment / immunology


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Carcinogens
  • Cathelicidins
  • Defensins