Antifolates are the oldest of the antimetabolite class of anticancer agents and were one of the first modern anticancer drugs. The first clinically useful antifolate, described in 1947, was 2,4-diamino-pteroylglutamate (4-amino-folic acid; aminopterin; AMT) which yielded the firstever remissions in childhood leukemia. AMT was soon superseded by its 10-methyl congener, methotrexate (MTX), based on toxicity considerations; MTX remains, with one limited exception, the only antifolate anticancer agent in clinical use to this date. Because of the safety and utility of MTX, considerable effort has been invested in attempting to design more therapeutically selective antifolates or antifolates with a wider tumor spectrum. Initially, the design was based on the burgeoning knowledge of folate-dependent pathways and the determinants of the mechanism of action of MTX. These determinants include transport, the tight-binding inhibition of its target (the folate-dependent enzyme dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR)), and metabolism of MTX to poly-γ-glutamate (Glu n) metabolites. These early studies led to the development of other antifolate DHFR inhibitors of two types: (1) “classical” analogs that use the same cellular transport systems as MTX and are also metabolized to Glun; and (2) “nonclassical” (i.e., lipophilic) analogs that do not require transport systems and that are not metabolized to Glun. Although several of these analogs have undergone clinical trial, none is proved superior to MTX. Detailed examination of the mechanisms of cytotoxicity and selectivity of MTX showed that inhibition of both dTMP synthesis and de novo purine synthesis, secondary to DHFR inhibition, led to DNA synthesis inhibition and subsequent cell death; inhibition of other folate-dependent pathways did not appear necessary for cell death. Further studies showed that the contribution of inhibition of dTMP or purine synthesis to cell death varied in different cell types. These data suggested that inhibition of one of these pathways individually might (at least in some cases) be therapeutically superior to the dual inhibition induced by MTX. Thus in rational design and in structure-based design studies, two new classes of antifolate enzyme inhibitors were elaborated-direct inhibitors of thymidylate synthase (TMPS) and direct inhibitors of one or both of the two folate-dependent enzymes of de novo purine synthesis. Members of each class included both classical and nonclassical types. After preclinical evaluation, several of these have moved into clinical trials. To date only one new TMPS inhibitor has successfully completed clinical trials and been approved for routine use; this drug, Tomudex (D1694, raltitrexed) is currently approved only in Europe and only for the treatment of colon cancer. This still represents a step forward for antifolates, however, since MTX is well-known to be ineffective in colon cancer; thus Tomudex extends the tumor range of antifolates. Antifolate development continues. Based on the immense body of knowledge now extant on antifolates, specific aspects of the mechanism of action have been the focus. Newer antifolates have been described that inhibit more than one pathway in folate metabolism, that have improved delivery, or that inhibit other targets in folate metabolism. These new analogs are in various stages of preclinical and clinical development.
anticancer antifolates, aminopterin, childhood leukemia, 10-methyl congener, methotrexate, folate-dependent pathways
Grace Cancer Drug Center, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Elm and Carlton Streets, Buffalo, NY 14263,USA.