Journal of Biomedical Science

, Volume 13, Issue 5, pp 657–666 | Cite as

Arsenic Carcinogenesis in the Skin



Chronic arsenic poisoning is a world public health issue. Long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic (As) from drinking water has been documented to induce cancers in lung, urinary bladder, kidney, liver and skin in a dose–response relationship. Oxidative stress, chromosomal abnormality and altered growth factors are possible modes of action in arsenic carcinogenesis. Arsenic tends to accumulate in the skin. Skin hyperpigmentation and hyperkeratosis have long been known to be the hallmark signs of chronic As exposure. There are significant associations between these dermatological lesions and risk of skin cancer. The most common arsenic-induced skin cancers are Bowen’s disease (carcinoma in situ), basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Arsenic-induced Bowen’s disease (As-BD) is able to transform into invasive BCC and SCC. Individuals with As-BD are considered for more aggressive cancer screening in the lung and urinary bladder. As-BD provides an excellent model for studying the early stages of chemical carcinogenesis in human beings. Arsenic exposure is associated with G2/M cell cycle arrest and DNA aneuploidy in both cultured keratinocytes and As-BD lesions. These cellular abnormalities relate to the p53 dysfunction induced by arsenic. The characteristic clinical figures of arsenic-induced skin cancer are: (i) occurrence on sun-protected areas of the body; (ii) multiple and recrudescent lesions. Both As and UVB are able to induce skin cancer. Arsenic treatment enhances the cytotoxicity, mutagenicity and clastogenicity of UV in mammalian cells. Both As and UVB induce apoptosis in keratinocytes by caspase-9 and caspase-8 signaling, respectively. Combined UVB and As treatments resulted in the antiproliferative and proapoptotic effects by stimulating both caspase pathways in the keratinocytes. UVB irradiation inhibited mutant p53 and ki-67 expression, as well as increased in the number of apoptotic cells in As-BD lesions which resulted in an inhibitory effect on proliferation. As-UVB interaction provides a reasonable explanation for the rare occurrences of arsenical cancer in the sun-exposed skin. The multiple and recurrent skin lesions are associated with cellular immune dysfunction in chronic arsenism. A decrease in peripheral CD4+ cells was noticed in the inhabitants of arsenic exposure areas. There was a decrease in the number of Langerhans cells in As-BD lesion which results in an impaired immune function on the lesional sites. Since CD4+ cells are the target cell affected by As, the interaction between CD4+ cells and epidermal keratinocytes under As affection might be closely linked to the pathogenesis of multiple occurrence of arsenic-induced skin cancer. In this review, we provide and discuss the pathomechanisms of arsenic skin cancer and the relationship to its characteristic figures. Such information is critical for understanding the molecular mechanism for arsenic carcinogenesis in other internal organs.


Arsenic Bowen’s disease skin cancer pathomechanism 



This study was supported by the National Science Council research grant NSC93–2320-B-002–059 and the National Health Research Institute research grant NHRI-EX94–9231SI, Taiwan.


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Copyright information

© National Science Council Taipei 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of DermatologyNational Taiwan University Hospital and National Taiwan University College of MedicineTaipeiTaiwan
  2. 2.Division of Environmental Health and Occupational MedicineNational Health Research InstitutesMiaoliTaiwan
  3. 3.Department of PathologyKaohsiung Medical UniversityKaohsiungTaiwan

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