Retinoids as Chemo-Preventive and Molecular-Targeted Anti-Cancer Therapies

Int J Mol Sci. 2021 Jul 20;22(14):7731. doi: 10.3390/ijms22147731.


Retinoic acid (RA) agents possess anti-tumor activity through their ability to induce cellular differentiation. However, retinoids have not yet been translated into effective systemic treatments for most solid tumors. RA signaling is mediated by the following two nuclear retinoic receptor subtypes: the retinoic acid receptor (RAR) and the retinoic X receptor (RXR), and their isoforms. The identification of mutations in retinoid receptors and other RA signaling pathway genes in human cancers offers opportunities for target discovery, drug design, and personalized medicine for distinct molecular retinoid subtypes. For example, chromosomal translocation involving RARA occurs in acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), and all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) is a highly effective and even curative therapeutic for APL patients. Thus, retinoid-based target discovery presents an important line of attack toward designing new, more effective strategies for treating other cancer types. Here, we review retinoid signaling, provide an update on retinoid agents and the current clinical research on retinoids in cancer, and discuss how the retinoid pathway genotype affects the ability of retinoid agents to inhibit the growth of colorectal cancer (CRC) cells. We also deliberate on why retinoid agents have not shown clinical efficacy against solid tumors and discuss alternative strategies that could overcome the lack of efficacy.

Keywords: adenomatous polyposis coli; aldehyde dehydrogenase; cancer stem cells; molecular targeted therapies; retinoic acid.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy / methods
  • Receptors, Retinoic Acid / metabolism
  • Retinoids / pharmacology*
  • Retinoids / therapeutic use*
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Tretinoin / metabolism


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Receptors, Retinoic Acid
  • Retinoids
  • Tretinoin