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The DNA demethylating agent 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine (DAC, decitabine) has anti-cancer therapeutic potential, but its clinical efficacy is hindered by DNA damage-related side effects and its use in solid tumours is debated. Here we describe how paracetamol augments the effects of DAC on cancer cell proliferation and differentiation, without enhancing DNA damage. Firstly, DAC specifically upregulates cyclooxygenase-2-prostaglandin E2 pathway, inadvertently providing cancer cells with survival potential, while the addition of paracetamol offsets this effect. Secondly, in the presence of paracetamol, DAC treatment leads to glutathione depletion and finally to accumulation of ROS and/or mitochondrial superoxide, both of which have the potential to restrict tumour growth. The benefits of combined treatment are demonstrated here in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) and acute myeloid leukaemia cell lines, further corroborated in a HNSCC xenograft mouse model and through mining of publicly available DAC and paracetamol responses. The sensitizing effect of paracetamol supplementation is specific to DAC but not its analogue 5-azacitidine. In summary, the addition of paracetamol could allow for DAC dose reduction, widening its clinical usability and providing a strong rationale for consideration in cancer therapy.

Original publication




Journal article


Cancer Lett

Publication Date





172 - 186


Acetaminophen, Acute myeloid leukaemia, Decitabine, Epigenetic therapies, Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, Acetaminophen, Animals, Antimetabolites, Antineoplastic, Cell Differentiation, Cell Line, Tumor, Cell Proliferation, Decitabine, Drug Synergism, HL-60 Cells, Head and Neck Neoplasms, Humans, Leukemia, Myeloid, Male, Mice, Oxidative Stress, Reactive Oxygen Species, Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck, Superoxides, Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays