The tumor necrosis factor (TNF) family comprises several ligands, such as the prototype TNF-alpha, the Fas ligand (FasL) and TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL/Apo2L), which trigger apoptosis in susceptible cells by activating respective cell-surface receptors. The study of these cell death pathways has attracted significant attention in several fields, including that of thyroid cancer, because they participate in immune system function, as an arm of cell-mediated cytotoxicity, and because recombinant ligands are available for pharmacological use. TNF-alpha is a pluripotent cytokine that induces both pro-apoptotic and anti-apoptotic effects on thyroid carcinoma cells. FasL triggers apoptosis in other tumor types, but thyroid carcinoma cells are resistant to this effect. On the other hand, TRAIL potently and selectively kills thyroid carcinoma cells. Consequently, TRAIL is the only member of the family with significant anticancer activity and an acceptable toxicity profile to be used as a novel therapy for thyroid cancer. The caspase inhibitor FLIP plays a significant role in negatively regulating receptor-induced apoptosis. Thelper 1-type cytokines, such as interferon-gamma, TNF-alpha and interleukin-1beta increase the sensitivity of both normal and neoplastic thyrocytes to FasL and TRAIL. On the other hand, IGF-I and other growth/survival factors produced in the local tumor microenvironment activate the phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase/Akt kinase pathway and exert an anti-apoptotic effect by upregulating several apoptosis inhibitors, including FLIP. Pharmacological modulation of apoptosis induced by FasL and TRAIL/Apo2L holds promise of therapeutic applications in human malignancies.
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