Human mycoses have become a threat to health world-wide. Unfortunately there are only a limited number of antimycotic drugs in use. Promising targets for drugs specific against fungi are those affecting chitin synthesis. Chitin is absent in vertebrates, and is essential for fungal wall integrity. A thorough knowledge of the mechanism of chitin synthesis is required to design specific inhibitors. We review here our current understanding of the process, and the most promising drugs that inhibit it. Chitin is made by chitin synthases requiring specific microvesicles, the chitosomes, for intracellular transport. Fungi contain several chitin synthases, some of which may be essential at a certain stage. This phenomenon is important to take into account for drug design. The most widely studied chitin synthase inhibitors are polyoxins and nikkomycins that probably bind to the catalytic site of chitin synthases. These are not equally susceptible to the drugs. In Saccharomyces cerevisiae the order of sensitivity is: Chs3p > Chs1p > Chs2p. Main problems for their succesful use in vivo are: low permeability, and different susceptibility of fungal species, and variable responses in animal models. Chemical modifications have been proposed to make more potent derivatives. Other synthetic or natural compounds are also promising as possible inhibitors, but their properties are less well known. Rational drug design has proceeded only on the basis of existing inhibitors, because the structure of the active site of chitin synthase is unknown. Undoubtedly, determination of this, and the biosynthetic mechanism will reveal unexpected drug targets in the future.
Keywords: pathogenic fungi, chitin, chitin synthase, chitin synthase inhibitors, polyoxin, nikkomycin
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