Complement activation by Cremophor EL as a possible contributor to hypersensitivity to paclitaxel: an in vitro study

J Natl Cancer Inst. 1998 Feb 18;90(4):300-6. doi: 10.1093/jnci/90.4.300.


Background: Cancer patients treated with the anticancer drug, paclitaxel (Taxol) often experience mild to severe hypersensitivity reactions. It is not known how these reactions are induced and whether the inducer is paclitaxel or its vehicle (i.e., Cremophor EL in 50% ethanol). Molecules present in Cremophor EL are similar in structure to certain nonionic block copolymers that activate complement proteins (i.e., proteins involved in various immune processes). To explore the role of complement in the observed hypersensitivity reactions, we studied the effects of paclitaxel and Cremophor EL plus ethanol on human complement in vitro.

Methods: Serum specimens from healthy individuals and cancer patients were incubated with paclitaxel or with relevant control compounds (Cremophor EL with ethanol, ethanol only, docetaxel, and cyclosporine), and markers of complement activation (SC5b-9 and Bb) were measured by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Similar incubations were performed in the presence of inhibitors of complement activation (i.e., EGTA/Mg2+ and soluble complement receptor type 1 [sCR1]).

Results: Paclitaxel in Cremophor EL plus ethanol caused increased formation of SC5b-9 in serum specimens from 10 of 10 healthy control subjects and from five of 10 cancer patients. Experiments with one or more individual sera indicated the above effect was due to Cremophor EL plus ethanol, that increased formation of Bb also occurred, that the drug-induced rise in SC5b-9 was inhibited by sCR1, and that EGTA/Mg2+ partially inhibited SC5b-9 formation and stimulated Bb formation.

Implication: The role of complement activation in hypersensitivity reactions associated with administration of paclitaxel in Cremophor EL plus ethanol should be studied in vivo.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic / adverse effects*
  • Complement Activation / drug effects*
  • Drug Hypersensitivity / immunology*
  • Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay
  • Glycerol / adverse effects
  • Glycerol / analogs & derivatives*
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Paclitaxel / adverse effects*
  • Pharmaceutical Vehicles / adverse effects


  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic
  • Pharmaceutical Vehicles
  • cremophor EL
  • Paclitaxel
  • Glycerol