Induction of thymidylate synthase as a 5-fluorouracil resistance mechanism

G. J. Peters, H. H.J. Backus, S. Freemantle, B. Van Triest, G. Codacci-Pisanelli, C. L. Van der Wilt, K. Smid, J. Lunec, A. H. Calvert, S. Marsh, H. L. McLeod, E. Bloemena, S. Meijer, G. Jansen, C. J. Van Groeningen, H. M. Pinedo

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Thymidylate synthase (TS) is a key enzyme in the de novo synthesis of 2′-deoxythymidine-5′-monophosphate (dTMP) from 2′-deoxyuridine-5′-monophosphate (dUMP), for which 5,10-methylene-tetrahydrofolate (CH2-THF) is the methyl donor. TS is an important target for chemotherapy; it is inhibited by folate and nucleotide analogs, such as by 5-fluoro-dUMP (FdUMP), the active metabolite of 5-fluorouracil (5FU). FdUMP forms a relatively stable ternary complex with TS and CH2THF, which is further stabilized by leucovorin (LV). 5FU treatment can induce TS expression, which might bypass dTMP depletion. An improved efficacy of 5FU might be achieved by increasing and prolonging TS inhibition, a prevention of dissociation of the ternary complex, and prevention of TS induction. In a panel of 17 colon cancer cells, including several variants with acquired resistance to 5FU, sensitivity was related to TS levels, but exclusion of the resistant variants abolished this relation. For antifolates, polyglutamylation was more important than the intrinsic TS level. Cells with low p53 levels were more sensitive to 5FU and the antifolate raltitrexed (RTX) than cells with high, mutated p53. Free TS protein down-regulates its own translation, but its transcription is regulated by E2F, a cell cycle checkpoint regulator. Together, this results in low TS levels in stationary phase cells. Although cells with a low TS might theoretically be more sensitive to 5FU, the low proliferation rate prevents induction of DNA damage and 5FU toxicity. TS levels were not related to polymorphisms of the TS promoter. Treatment with 5FU or RTX rapidly induced TS levels two- to five-fold. In animal models, 5FU treatment resulted in TS inhibition followed by a two- to three-fold TS induction. Both LV and a high dose of 5FU not only enhanced TS inhibition, but also prevented TS induction and increased the antitumor effect. In patients, TS levels as determined by enzyme activity assays, immunohistochemistry and mRNA expression, were related to a response to 5FU. 5FU treatment initially decreased TS levels, but this was followed by an induction, as seen with an increased ratio of TS protein over TS-mRNA. The clear retrospective relation between TS levels and response now forms the basis for a prospective study, in which TS levels are measured before treatment in order to determine the treatment protocol.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)194-205
Number of pages12
JournalBiochimica et Biophysica Acta - Molecular Basis of Disease
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - Jul 18 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • 5-fluorouracil
  • Antifolate
  • E2F
  • Thymidylate synthase
  • p53

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Medicine
  • Molecular Biology


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