Pharmacological targeting and the diverse functions of the metastasis suppressor, NDRG1, in cancer

Free Radic Biol Med. 2020 Sep;157:154-175. doi: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2019.05.020. Epub 2019 May 24.


N-myc downstream regulated gene-1 (NDRG1) is a potent metastasis suppressor that is regulated by hypoxia, metal ions including iron, the free radical nitric oxide (NO.), and various stress stimuli. This intriguing molecule exhibits diverse functions in cancer, inhibiting epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), cell migration and angiogenesis by modulation of a plethora of oncogenes via cellular signaling. Thus, pharmacological targeting of NDRG1 signaling in cancer is a promising therapeutic strategy. Of note, novel anti-tumor agents of the di-2-pyridylketone thiosemicarbazone series, which exert the "double punch" mechanism by binding metal ions to form redox-active complexes, have been demonstrated to markedly up-regulate NDRG1 expression in cancer cells. This review describes the mechanisms underlying NDRG1 modulation by the thiosemicarbazones and the diverse effects NDRG1 exerts in cancer. As a major induction mechanism, iron depletion appears critical, with NO. also inducing NDRG1 through its ability to bind iron and generate dinitrosyl-dithiol iron complexes, which are then effluxed from cells. Apart from its potent anti-metastatic role, several studies have reported a pro-oncogenic role of NDRG1 in a number of cancer-types. Hence, it has been suggested that NDRG1 plays pleiotropic roles depending on the cancer-type. The molecular mechanism(s) underlying NDRG1 pleiotropy remain elusive, but are linked to differential regulation of WNT signaling and potentially differential interaction with the tumor suppressor, PTEN. This review discusses NDRG1 induction mechanisms by metal ions and NO. and both the anti- and possible pro-oncogenic functions of NDRG1 in multiple cancer-types and compares the opposite effects this protein exerts on cancer progression.

Keywords: Anticancer drug; Cancer; Metastasis suppressor; N-myc downstream regulated gene-1; Pleiotropy; Thiosemicarbazones.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cell Cycle Proteins / genetics
  • Cell Cycle Proteins / metabolism
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Movement
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins / genetics
  • Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Thiosemicarbazones*


  • Cell Cycle Proteins
  • Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins
  • Thiosemicarbazones