Carbon monoxide (CO) is now well recognized a pivotal endogenous signaling molecule in mammalian lives. The proof-of-concept employing chemical carriers of exogenous CO as prodrugs for CO release, also known as CO-releasing molecules (CO-RMs), has been appreciated. The major advantage of CO-RMs is that they are able to deliver CO to the target sites in a controlled manner. There is an increasing body of experimental studies suggesting the therapeutic potentials of CO and CO-RMs in different cancer models. This review firstly presents a short but crucial view concerning the characteristics of CO and CO-RMs. Then, the anticancer activities of CO-RMs that target many cancer hallmarks, mainly proliferation, apoptosis, angiogenesis, and invasion and metastasis, are discussed. However, their anticancer activities are varying and cell-type specific. The aerobic metabolism of molecular oxygen inevitably generates various oxygen-containing reactive metabolites termed reactive oxygen species (ROS) which play important roles in both physiology and pathophysiology. Although ROS act as a double-edged sword in cancer, both sides of which may potentially have been exploited for therapeutic benefits. The main focus of the present review is thus to identify the possible signaling network by which CO-RMs can exert their anticancer actions, where ROS play the central role. Another important issue concerning the potential effect of CO-RMs on the aerobic glycolysis (the Warburg effect) which is a feature of cancer metabolic reprogramming is given before the conclusion with future prospects on the challenges of developing CO-RMs into clinically pharmaceutical candidates in cancer therapy.
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