Approaches to cancer prevention based on an understanding of N-nitrosamine carcinogenesis

Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 1997 Nov;216(2):181-91. doi: 10.3181/00379727-216-44168.


Understanding carcinogenesis is critical for development of rational approaches to cancer prevention. This paper uses N-nitrosamine carcinogenesis as an example. N-Nitrosamines are a large group of potent carcinogens. Approximately 300 different N-nitrosamines are carcinogenic. At least 30 animal species are responsive to their effects. There is little doubt that humans exposed to sufficient amounts of N-nitrosamines would also be susceptible to their carcinogenic effects. Human exposure to preformed N-nitrosamines occurs through the diet, in certain occupational settings, and through the use of tobacco products, cosmetics, pharmaceutical products, and agricultural chemicals. Diminishing human exposure to these carcinogens is one approach to prevention of cancer, and this has been accomplished in many instances, although exposure to N-nitrosamines in tobacco products is still unacceptably high. Human exposure to N-nitrosamines also occurs by nitrosation of amines in the body, via their acid or bacterial catalyzed reaction with nitrite, or by reaction with products of nitric oxide generated during inflammation or infection. A second approach toward prevention of N-nitrosamine carcinogenesis is inhibition of this endogenous N-nitrosamine formation. Substantial reductions have been achieved with ascorbic acid and other nitrite scavengers. N-Nitrosamines undergo a simple cytochrome P450-mediated metabolic activation step, which is critical for their carcinogenicity. The third approach involves the use of chemopreventive agents that block this step, or other steps in the carcinogenic process. A large number of potent chemopreventive agents against nitrosamine carcinogenesis have been identified. Chemoprevention of lung cancer induced by the tobacco-specific nitrosamine 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK) is discussed as an example of this approach.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Ascorbic Acid / pharmacology
  • Biotransformation
  • Carcinogens* / metabolism
  • Carcinogens* / toxicity
  • Chemoprevention*
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Humans
  • Inactivation, Metabolic
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced*
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Nicotiana / chemistry
  • Nitrosamines / adverse effects*
  • Nitrosamines / metabolism
  • Nitrosamines / pharmacology
  • Nitrosamines / toxicity
  • Plants, Toxic


  • Anticarcinogenic Agents
  • Carcinogens
  • Nitrosamines
  • 4-(N-methyl-N-nitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone
  • Ascorbic Acid