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Biochim Biophys Acta. 1989 Dec 17;989(2):163-77.

Topoisomerase-targeting antitumor drugs.

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  • 1Department of Biological Chemistry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD 21205.


Much has been learned about the unusual type of DNA damage produced by the topoisomerases. The mechanism by which these lesions trigger cell death, however, remains unclear, but it appears that DNA metabolic machinery transforms reversible single-strand cleavable complexes to overt strand breaks which may be an initial event in the cytotoxic pathway. For the topoisomerase I poisons, they produce breaks at replication forks that appear to be the equivalent of a break in duplex DNA. Indicating that this may be an important cytotoxic lesion is the hypersensitivity to camptothecin of the yeast mutant rad52, which is deficient in double-strand-break-repair. The topoisomerase poisons preferentially kill proliferating cells. In the case of the topoisomerase I poison camptothecin, dramatic S-phase-specific cytotoxicity can explain its preferential action on proliferating cells. For the topoisomerase II poisons, high levels of the enzyme in proliferating cells, and very low levels in quiescent cells appear to explain the resistance of quiescent cells to the drug's cytotoxic effects. Thus, the topoisomerase poisons convert essential enzymes into intracellular, proliferating-cell toxins. The identification of both topoisomerase I and II as the specific targets of cancer chemotherapeutic drugs now provides a rational basis for the development of topoisomerase I poisons for possible clinical use. Knowledge of the molecular mechanisms of cell killing may lead to the identification of new therapies for treating cancer. The topoisomerase poisons appear to be a good tool for studying cell killing mechanisms as they produce highly specific and reversible lesions.

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