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Clin Cancer Res. 2002 Mar;8(3):641-61.

Current perspectives on the clinical experience, pharmacology, and continued development of the camptothecins.

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  • 1Division of Hematology/Oncology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02114, USA.


The camptothecins are a maturing class of anticancer agents. In this article, we review the pharmacology and antitumor activity of the camptothecin analogues that are approved for clinical use and those investigational agents undergoing clinical evaluation. Camptothecin is a naturally occurring cytotoxic alkaloid that has a unique intracellular target, topoisomerase I, a nuclear enzyme that reduces the torsional stress of supercoiled DNA during the replication, recombination, transcription, and repair of DNA. Topotecan and irinotecan are synthetic analogues designed to facilitate parenteral administration of the active lactone form of the compound by introducing functional groups to enhance solubility. They are now well-established components in the chemotherapeutic management of several neoplasms. Topotecan has modest activity in patients treated previously with ovarian and small cell lung cancer and is currently approved for use in the United States as second-line therapy in these diseases. Preliminary evidence of activity against hematological malignancies is also promising. Irinotecan is a prodrug that undergoes enzymatic conversion to the biologically active metabolite 7-ethyl-10-hydroxy-camptothecin. It is presently the treatment of choice when used in combination with fluoropyrimidines as first-line therapy for patients with advanced colorectal cancer or as a single agent after failure of 5-fluorouracil-based chemotherapy. Encouraging preliminary results suggest that irinotecan may have an increasing role in the treatment of other solid tumors, including small and non-small cell lung cancer, cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, gastric cancer, and malignant gliomas. Several additional camptothecin analogues are in various stages of clinical development, including 9-aminocamptothecin, 9-nitrocamptothecin, 7-(4-methylpiperazinomethylene)-10,11-ethylenedioxy-20(S)-camptothecin, exatecan mesylate, and karenitecin. Efforts to further optimize therapeutic effectiveness through drug delivery strategies that prolong tumor exposure to these S phase-specific agents, such as improving oral bioavailability through structure modification and innovative formulation approaches, alternative parenteral dosage forms, and administration schedules, are being actively pursued. Combining camptothecins with other anticancer drugs and treatment modalities, as well as gaining a better understanding of the factors contributing to tumor sensitivity and resistance, continues to be the object of considerable interest.

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