- Differentiation therapy of cancer remains an only partially attained goal. Agents currently under active investigation include derivatives of vitamin D, modeled on its physiological hormone form, 1alpha,25-dihydroxyvitamin D(3) (1,25D(3)), but the calcemic effects of these compounds preclude their use in the clinic. An approach that may obviate this problem is to combine 1,25D(3) or its derivatives with other agents that increase the antineoplastic effects of low, nontoxic concentrations of vitamin D compounds. We have recently used the plant-derived polyphenolic antioxidant, carnosic acid (CA), to demonstrate an increase in the differentiating action of 1,25D(3) on human leukemia cells under these conditions (M. Danilenko et al., JNCI, 93: 1224-1233, 2001). We now show that treatment of HL60-G cells with either CA or 1,25D(3) alone resulted in a decrease in the intracellular levels of reactive oxygen species. Furthermore, the combination of 10 micro M CA and a low concentration of 1,25D(3) (1 nM) produced an enhanced antioxidant effect, which correlated with the potentiation of monocytic differentiation. Other plant antioxidants tested (curcumin, silibinin, and the organoselenium antioxidant ebselen) also potentiated differentiation induced by 1,25D(3), although alone, they had only minor differentiating effects. Differentiation induced by CA/1,25D(3) combinations was associated with increased intracellular glutathione content, whereas buthionine sulfoxime decreased both differentiation and the cellular glutathione content. This combination also enhanced the activation of the Raf-mitogen-activated protein/extracellular signal-regulated kinase kinase-extracellular signal-regulated kinase mitogen-activated protein kinase module and increased the binding of the activator protein-1 (AP-1) transcription factor to its cognate DNA element in the promoter regions of vitamin D receptor gene, suggesting that the mechanism of potentiation is at least in part attributable to induction and activation of components of this mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway. Cell treatment with a high concentration of 1,25D(3) (100 nM) resulted in a substantial elevation of basal intracellular calcium concentration. In contrast, importantly for an eventual clinical application of these studies, the potentiating action of CA on differentiation induced by a low concentration of 1,25D(3) (1 nM) was not accompanied by an elevation of basal intracellular calcium concentration. These findings suggest that combinations of CA with derivatives of vitamin D should be evaluated for use in differentiation therapy of myeloid leukemias.