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Front Oncol. 2013 Dec 12;3:304. doi: 10.3389/fonc.2013.00304.

The unpluggable in pursuit of the undruggable: tackling the dark matter of the cancer therapeutics universe.

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  • 1Laboratory of Genome Evolution & Informatics, The Kinghorn Cancer Centre, and Clinical Informatics & Research Centre, Department of Oncology, St Vincent's Hospital, UNSW Clinical School , Sydney, NSW , Australia.


The notion that targeted drugs can unplug gain-of-function tumor pathways has revitalized pharmaceutical research, but the survival benefits of this strategy have so far proven modest. A weakness of oncogene-blocking approaches is that they do not address the problem of cancer progression as selected by the recessive phenotypes of genetic instability and apoptotic resistance which in turn arise from loss-of-function - i.e., undruggable - defects of caretaker (e.g., BRCA, MLH1) or gatekeeper (e.g., TP53, PTEN) suppressor genes. Genetic instability ensures that rapid cell kill is balanced by rapid selection for apoptotic resistance and hence for metastasis, casting doubt on the assumption that cytotoxicity ("response") remains the best way to identify survival-enhancing drugs. In the absence of gene therapy, it is proposed here that caretaker-defective (high-instability) tumors may be best treated with low-lethality drugs inducing replicative (RAS-RAF-ERK) arrest or dormancy, causing "stable disease" rather than tumorilytic remission. Gatekeeper-defective (death-resistant) tumors, on the other hand, may be best managed by combining survival (PI3K-AKT-mTOR) pathway blockade with metronomic or sequential pro-apoptotic drugs.


apoptosis; carcinogenesis; drug development; genetic instability; tumor suppressor genes

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