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Free Radic Biol Med. 1992 Oct;13(4):407-33.

Protection by beta-carotene and related compounds against oxygen-mediated cytotoxicity and genotoxicity: implications for carcinogenesis and anticarcinogenesis.

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Bioenergetics Research Laboratory, School of Kinesiology, Faculty of Applied Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada.


beta-Carotene protects against photooxidative dermatitis in porphyric humans and mice by quenching of photoactivated species. Other actions of beta-carotene in vivo are explained on the basis of its ability to scavenge free radicals in vitro. For example, in guinea pigs treated with CCl4, beta-carotene decreases pentane and ethane production. Epidemiological studies link low serum beta-carotene levels to elevated risk of lung and other cancers, and in intervention trials, beta-carotene diminishes preneoplastic lesions. However, the dose/response relationships are not well established, and antineoplastic mechanisms await clarification. Given a radical quenching mechanism, beta-carotene should block tumor promotion, but more typically the site of action is progression and an even later role in invasion has not been ruled out. Some antineoplastic actions of carotenoids (such as increased rejection of fibrosarcomas in mice) are attributed to immunoenhancement; others may reflect conversion to retinoids and subsequent gene regulation. Carotenoids other than beta-carotene may act at an earlier stage of carcinogenesis or be more effective as anticarcinogens at certain target sites. As scavengers of hydroxyl radicals, canthaxanthin and astaxanthin are more effective than beta-carotene. Canthaxanthin is sometimes more effective than beta-carotene in chemoprevention, but it is sometimes completely ineffective. Lycopene quenches singlet oxygen more than twice as effectively as beta-carotene. However, the antineoplastic actions of lycopene or astaxanthin remain untested. Explorations of the interactions of carotenoids with other nutrients are just beginning. Dietary fat increases absorption of carotene but decreases antineoplastic effectiveness. Research is hampered by technical problems, including the unavailability of rigorous controls, the instability of carotenoids, and the heterogeneous phase structure induced by hydrophobic compounds in aqueous media. Areas of current controversy and promising approaches for future research are identified.

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