Biochemical Journal

Research article

Palmitoylethanolamide inhibits the expression of fatty acid amide hydrolase and enhances the anti-proliferative effect of anandamide in human breast cancer cells

Vincenzo Di MARZO, Dominique MELCK, Pierangelo ORLANDO, Tiziana BISOGNO, Orna ZAGOORY, Maurizio BIFULCO, Zvi VOGEL, Luciano de PETROCELLIS


Palmitoylethanolamide (PEA) has been shown to act in synergy with anandamide (arachidonoylethanolamide; AEA), an endogenous agonist of cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1). This synergistic effect was reduced by the CB2 cannabinoid receptor antagonist SR144528, although PEA does not activate either CB1 or CB2 receptors. Here we show that PEA potently enhances the anti-proliferative effects of AEA on human breast cancer cells (HBCCs), in part by inhibiting the expression of fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), the major enzyme catalysing AEA degradation. PEA (1–10μM) enhanced in a dose-related manner the inhibitory effect of AEA on both basal and nerve growth factor (NGF)-induced HBCC proliferation, without inducing any cytostatic effect by itself. PEA (5μM) decreased the IC50 values for AEA inhibitory effects by 3–6-fold. This effect was not blocked by the CB2 receptor antagonist SR144528, and was not mimicked by a selective agonist of CB2 receptors. PEA enhanced AEA-evoked inhibition of the expression of NGF Trk receptors, which underlies the anti-proliferative effect of the endocannabinoid on NGF-stimulated MCF-7 cells. The effect of PEA was due in part to inhibition of AEA degradation, since treatment of MCF-7 cells with 5μM PEA caused a ∼ 30–40% down-regulation of FAAH expression and activity. However, PEA also enhanced the cytostatic effect of the cannabinoid receptor agonist HU-210, although less potently than with AEA. PEA did not modify the affinity of ligands for CB1 or CB2 receptors, and neither did it alter the CB1/CB2-mediated inhibitory effect of AEA on adenylate cyclase type V, nor the expression of CB1 and CB2 receptors in MCF-7 cells. We suggest that long-term PEA treatment of cells may positively affect the pharmacological activity of AEA, in part by inhibiting FAAH expression.

  • 2-arachidonoylglycerol
  • arvanil
  • cell proliferation
  • endocannabinoids
  • receptors


  • Abbreviations used: AC, adenylate cyclase; AEA, arachidonoylethanolamide (anandamide); 2-AG, 2-arachidonoylglycerol; CB1/CB2 receptor, cannabinoid receptor type 1/2; FAAH, fatty acid amide hydrolase; HBCC, human breast cancer cell; NAE, N-acylethanolamine; NGF, nerve growth factor; PEA, palmitoylethanolamide; RT-PCR, reverse transcriptase–PCR.