Anticancer properties of tocotrienols: A review of cellular mechanisms and molecular targets

J Cell Physiol. 2019 Feb;234(2):1147-1164. doi: 10.1002/jcp.27075. Epub 2018 Aug 1.


Vitamin E is composed of two groups of compounds: α-, β-, γ-, and δ-tocopherols (TPs), and the corresponding unsaturated tocotrienols (TTs). TTs are found in natural sources such as red palm oil, annatto seeds, and rice bran. In the last decades, TTs (specifically, γ-TT and δ-TT) have gained interest due to their health benefits in chronic diseases, based on their antioxidant, neuroprotective, cholesterol-lowering, anti-inflammatory activities. Several in vitro and in vivo studies pointed out that TTs also exert a significant antitumor activity in a wide range of cancer cells. Specifically, TTs were shown to exert antiproliferative/proapoptotic effects and to reduce the metastatic or angiogenic properties of different cancer cells; moreover, these compounds were reported to specifically target the subpopulation of cancer stem cells, known to be deeply involved in the development of resistance to standard therapies. Interestingly, recent studies pointed out that TTs exert a synergistic antitumor effect on cancer cells when given in combination with either standard antitumor agents (i.e., chemotherapeutics, statins, "targeted" therapies) or natural compounds with anticancer activity (i.e., sesamin, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), resveratrol, ferulic acid). Based on these observations, different TT synthetic derivatives and formulations were recently developed and demonstrated to improve TT water solubility and to reduce TT metabolism in cancer cells, thus increasing their biological activity. These promising results, together with the safety of TT administration in healthy subjects, suggest that these compounds might represent a new chemopreventive or anticancer treatment (i.e., in combination with standard therapies) strategy. Clinical trials aimed at confirming this antitumor activity of TTs are needed.

Keywords: cell proliferation or apoptosis; combination strategies; targeted molecular mechanisms; tocotrienol formulations; tocotrienols.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols / adverse effects
  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols / therapeutic use*
  • Drug Synergism
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Signal Transduction
  • Tocotrienols / adverse effects
  • Tocotrienols / therapeutic use*
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Tocotrienols