Camptothecins are cytotoxic agents with a wide spectrum of antitumor activity. The unique mechanism of action, the impressive preclinical efficacy and the clinical success of irinotecan and topotecan have stimulated intensive efforts to identify novel analogues. The development of novel camptothecins was recently rationalized on the basis of the detailed knowledge of mechanism of drug-target interaction and was aimed to overcome the major limitations of these drugs (i.e. lactone ring instability and reversibility of topoisomerase I-DNA cleavage complexes). The development of novel series of analogues (7-substituted camptothecins, silatecans and homocamptothecins) resulted in identification of promising compounds, which are currently in clinical development. Considering the lack of precise correlations between preclinical activity and clinical efficacy of camptothecins, the potential advantages of novel analogs in clinical therapy remains to be documented. However, a rational basis for drug selection and development is now provided by the recognition of major limitations of these agents and by a detailed knowledge of multiple interactions between drug, cellular target and serum albumin. Inhibition of the nuclear enzyme DNA topoisomerase I has proven to be a promising strategy in the design of antitumor agents, in spite of a limited cellular basis of selectivity in cytotoxic action of camptothecins (i.e., overexpression of the target enzyme in tumor cells, and increased sensitivity of proliferating cells). The interest in topoisomerase I as a therapeutic target promoted various efforts to identify other chemotypes effecti ve as topoisomerase inhibitors and chemical / modelling efforts to rationally design specific analogs among known inhibitors. Additional approaches, including drug delivery / formulation, optimization of dose / schedule and route of administration, are expected to improve the therapy with camptothecins and other inhibitors.
Preclinical Pharmacology Unit, Istituto Nazionale per lo Studio e la Cura dei Tumori, Via Venezian 1, 20133, Milano, Italy