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Antioxid Redox Signal. 2012 Jun 1;16(11):1295-322. doi: 10.1089/ars.2011.4414. Epub 2012 Jan 16.

Upsides and downsides of reactive oxygen species for cancer: the roles of reactive oxygen species in tumorigenesis, prevention, and therapy.

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Cytokine Research Laboratory, Department of Experimental Therapeutics, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas, USA.



Extensive research during the last quarter century has revealed that reactive oxygen species (ROS) produced in the body, primarily by the mitochondria, play a major role in various cell-signaling pathways. Most risk factors associated with chronic diseases (e.g., cancer), such as stress, tobacco, environmental pollutants, radiation, viral infection, diet, and bacterial infection, interact with cells through the generation of ROS.


ROS, in turn, activate various transcription factors (e.g., nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells [NF-κB], activator protein-1, hypoxia-inducible factor-1α, and signal transducer and activator of transcription 3), resulting in the expression of proteins that control inflammation, cellular transformation, tumor cell survival, tumor cell proliferation and invasion, angiogenesis, and metastasis. Paradoxically, ROS also control the expression of various tumor suppressor genes (p53, Rb, and PTEN). Similarly, γ-radiation and various chemotherapeutic agents used to treat cancer mediate their effects through the production of ROS. Interestingly, ROS have also been implicated in the chemopreventive and anti-tumor action of nutraceuticals derived from fruits, vegetables, spices, and other natural products used in traditional medicine.


These statements suggest both "upside" (cancer-suppressing) and "downside" (cancer-promoting) actions of the ROS. Thus, similar to tumor necrosis factor-α, inflammation, and NF-κB, ROS act as a double-edged sword. This paradox provides a great challenge for researchers whose aim is to exploit ROS stress for the development of cancer therapies.


the various mechanisms by which ROS mediate paradoxical effects are discussed in this article. The outstanding questions and future directions raised by our current understanding are discussed.

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