Sphingolipids are a class of lipids that have important functions in a variety of cellular processes such as, differentiation, proliferation, senescence, apoptosis and chemotherapeutic resistance. The most widely studied bioactive shingolipids include ceramides, dihydroceramide (dhCer), ceramide-1-phosphate (C1P), glucosyl-ceramide (GluCer), sphingosine and sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P). Although the length of fatty acid chain affects the physiological role, ceramides and sphingosine are known to induce apoptosis whereas C1P, S1P and GluCer induce proliferation of cells, which causes the development of chemoresistance. Previous studies have implicated the significance of bioactive shingolipids in oncogenesis, cancer progression and drug- and radiation-resistance. Therefore, targeting the elements of sphingolipid metabolism appears important for the development of novel therapeutics or to increase the effectiveness of the current treatment strategies. Some approaches involve the development of synthetic ceramide analogs, small molecule inhibitors of enzymes such as sphingosine kinase, acid ceramidase or ceramide synthase that catalyze ceramide catabolism or its conversion to various molecular species and S1P receptor antagonists. These approaches mainly aim to up-regulate the levels of apoptotic shingolipids while the proliferative ones are down-regulated, or to directly deliver cytotoxic sphingolipids like short-chain ceramide analogs to tumor cells. It is suggested that a combination therapy with conventional cytotoxic approaches while preventing the conversion of ceramide to S1P and consequently increasing the ceramide levels would be more beneficial. This review compiles the current knowledge about sphingolipids, and mainly focuses on novel agents modulating sphingolipid pathways that represent recent therapeutic strategies for the treatment of cancer.
Keywords: Bioactive sphingolipids, cancer, ceramides, ceramide synthase, ceramide kinase, drug resistance, glucosylceramide, glucosylceramide synthase, sphingosine kinase-1, sphingosine-1-phosphate, sphingosine-1-phosphate receptor, cancer treatment