Development of distamycin-related DNA binding anticancer drugs

S. Marchini, M. Broggini, C. Sessa, M. D'Incalci

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The relatively low therapeutic index of the clinically used alkylating agents is probably related to the fact that these compounds cause DNA damage in a relatively unspecific manner, mainly involving guanine-cytosine rich stretches of DNA present in virtually all genes, therefore inducing unselective growth inhibition and death, both in neoplastic and in highly proliferative normal tissues. These considerations explain why in the last twenty years there has been an increasing interest in the identification of compounds which can target DNA with a much higher degree of sequence specificity than that of conventional alkylators. Minor groove binders (MGBs) are one of the most widely studied class of alkylating agents characterised by a high level of sequence specificity. The prototype of this class of drugs is distamycin A which is an antiviral compound able to interact, non-covalently, in the minor groove of DNA in A-T rich regions. It is not cytotoxic against tumour cells and thus has been used as a carrier for targeting cytotoxic alkylating moieties in the minor groove of DNA. The benzoyl mustard derivative of distamycin A, tallimustine, was found to be able to alkylate the N3 of adenine in the minor groove of DNA only in the target hexamer 5′-TTTTGA or 5′-TTTTAA. Tallimustine was investigated in the clinic and was not successful because it causes severe bone marrow toxicity. The screening of other distamycin derivatives, which maintain antitumour activity and exhibit much lower toxicity against human bone marrow cells than tallimustine led to the identification of brostallicin (PNU-166196) which is currently under early clinical investigation. Although MGBs which bind DNA in A-T rich regions have not fulfilled the expectations, it is too early to draw definitive conclusions on this class of compounds. The peculiar bone-marrow toxicity observed in the clinic both with tallimustine or with CC-1065 derivatives is not necessarily a feature of all MGBs, as indicated by recent evidence obtained with brostallicin and other structurally unrelated MGBs (e.g., ET-743).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1703-1714
Number of pages12
JournalExpert Opinion on Investigational Drugs
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2001


  • Alkylating agents
  • DNA sequence specificity
  • Glutathione
  • Minor groove binders

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology


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