Vitamin E: Protective role of a Janus molecule

Roberta Ricciarelli, Jean Marc Zingg, Angelo Azzi

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

240 Scopus citations


Since the discovery of vitamin E in 1922, its deficiency has been associated with various disorders, particularly atherosclerosis, ischemic heart disease, and the development of different types of cancer. A neurological syndrome associated with vitamin E deficiency resembling Friedreich ataxia has also been described. Whereas epidemiological studies have indicated the role of vitamin E in preventing the progression of atherosclerosis and cancer, intervention trials have produced contradictory results, indicating strong protection in some cases and no significant effect in others. Although it is commonly believed that phenolic compounds like vitamin E exert only a protective role against free radical damage, antioxidant molecules can exert other biological functions. For instance, the anti-oxidant activity of 17-β-estradiol is not related to its role in determining secondary sexual characters, and the antioxidant capacity of all-trans-retinal is distinguished from its role in rhodopsin and vision. Thus, it is not unusual that α-tocopherol (the most active form of vitamin E) has properties independent of its antioxidant/radical scavenging ability. The Roman god Janus, shown in ancient coins as having two faces in one body, inspired the designation of 'Janus molecules' for these substances. The new biochemical face of vitamin E was first described in 1991, with an inhibitory effect on cell proliferation and protein kinase C activity. After a decade, this nonantioxidant role of vitamin E is well established, as confirmed by authoritative studies of signal transduction and gene regulation. More recently, a tocopherol binding protein with possible receptor function has been discovered. Despite such important developments in understanding the molecular mechanism and the targets of vitamin E, its new Janus face is not fully elucidated. Greater knowledge of the molecular events related to vitamin E will help in selecting the parameters for clinical intervention studies such as population type, dose response effects, and possible synergism with other compounds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2314-2325
Number of pages12
JournalFASEB Journal
Issue number13
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Antioxidant
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Intervention trials
  • Tocopherol

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


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