Cytarabine acts through direct DNA damage and incorporation into DNA. Cytarabine is cytotoxic to a wide variety of proliferating mammalian cells in culture. It exhibits cell phase specificity, primarily killing cells undergoing DNA synthesis (S-phase) and under certain conditions blocking the progression of cells from the G1 phase to the S-phase. Although the mechanism of action is not completely understood, it appears that cytarabine acts through the inhibition of DNA polymerase. A limited, but significant, incorporation of cytarabine into both DNA and RNA has also been reported.
Cytarabine is an antineoplastic anti-metabolite used in the treatment of several forms of leukemia including acute myelogenous leukemia and meningeal leukemia. Anti-metabolites masquerade as purine or pyrimidine - which become the building blocks of DNA. They prevent these substances becoming incorporated in to DNA during the "S" phase (of the cell cycle), stopping normal development and division. Cytarabine is metabolized intracellularly into its active triphosphate form (cytosine arabinoside triphosphate). This metabolite then damages DNA by multiple mechanisms, including the inhibition of alpha-DNA polymerase, inhibition of DNA repair through an effect on beta-DNA polymerase, and incorporation into DNA. The latter mechanism is probably the most important. Cytotoxicity is highly specific for the S phase of the cell cycle.
Cytarabine syndrome may develop - it is characterized by fever, myalgia, bone pain, occasionally chest pain, maculopapular rash, conjunctivitis, and malaise.