Carotenoids and retinoids are chemically related; indeed a major source of vitamin A in humans occurs through enzymic cleavage of β-carotene. However, most dietary carotenoids cannot be converted into retinoids. Retinoids have demonstrated cancer-preventive activities in humans and experimental models; however, their toxicity has precluded wide-scale clinical use. In contrast, carotenoids are essentially non-toxic and their cancer-preventive activities, although strongly supported by epidemiological studies, have only been satisfactorily demonstrated in experimental systems. We have shown that in an experimental cell culture system consisting of carcinogen-treated 10T1/2 cells, both retinoids and all dietary carotenoids examined can reversibly inhibit neoplastic transformation in the post-initiation phase of carcinogenesis. This activity strongly correlates with their ability to increase gap junctional intercellular communication by up-regulating the expression of the gene CX43 (connexin43). Connexins comprise the structural unit of gap junctions, organelles which allow direct transfer of signals, nutrients and waste products between contacting cells. CX43 is the most widely expressed member of the gap junction family of genes, and we have demonstrated that its expression is strongly down-regulated in human cancers and in several premalignant conditions. When several human tumour cell lines were genetically engineered to conditionally express CX43 under the influence of a tetracycline promoter, their neoplastic phenotype was strongly attenuated. Specifically, induced cells were inhibited from growing in an anchorage-independent manner and, additionally, growth as xenografts in immunocompromised animals was also strongly attenuated. Growth inhibition in suspension was associated both with increased G1 cell-cycle arrest and with increased apoptosis. We propose a model whereby junctional communication allows the transfer of growth inhibitory signals from normal to neoplastic cells and that retinoids and carotenoids, by increasing signal transfer, act to prevent cancer.

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