Protein kinases as targets for anticancer agents: from inhibitors to useful drugs

Pharmacol Ther. Feb-Mar 2002;93(2-3):79-98. doi: 10.1016/s0163-7258(02)00179-1.


Many components of mitogenic signaling pathways in normal and neoplastic cells have been identified, including the large family of protein kinases, which function as components of signal transduction pathways, playing a central role in diverse biological processes, such as control of cell growth, metabolism, differentiation, and apoptosis. The development of selective protein kinase inhibitors that can block or modulate diseases caused by abnormalities in these signaling pathways is widely considered a promising approach for drug development. Because of their deregulation in human cancers, protein kinases, such as Bcr-Abl, those in the epidermal growth factor-receptor (HER) family, the cell cycle regulating kinases such as the cyclin-dependent kinases, as well as the vascular endothelial growth factor-receptor kinases involved in the neo-vascularization of tumors, are among the protein kinases considered as prime targets for the development of selective inhibitors. These drug-discovery efforts have generated inhibitors and low-molecular weight therapeutics directed against the ATP-binding site of various protein kinases that are in various stages of development (up to Phase II/III clinical trials). Three examples of inhibitors of protein kinases are reviewed, including low-molecular weight compounds targeting the cell cycle kinases; a potent and selective inhibitor of the HER1/HER2 receptor tyrosine kinase, the pyrollopyrimidine PKI166; and the 2-phenyl-aminopyrimidine STI571 (Glivec(R), Gleevec) a targeted drug therapy directed toward Bcr-Abl, the key player in chronic leukemia (CML). Some members of the HER family of receptor tyrosine kinases, in particular HER1 and HER2, have been found to be overexpressed in a variety of human tumors, suggesting that inhibition of HER signaling would be a viable antiproliferative strategy. The pyrrolo-pyrimidine PKI166 was developed as an HER1/HER2 inhibitor with potent in vitro antiproliferative and in vivo antitumor activity. Based upon its clear association with disease, the Bcr-Abl tyrosine kinase in CML represents the ideal target to validate the clinical utility of protein kinase inhibitors as therapeutic agents. In a preclinical model, STI571 (Glivec(R), Gleevec) showed potent in vitro and in vivo antitumor activity that was selective for Abl, c-Kit, and the platelet-derived growth factor-receptor. Phase I/II studies demonstrated that STI571 is well tolerated, and that it showed promising hematological and cytogenetic responses in CML and clinical responses in the c-Kit-driven gastrointestinal tumors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Benzamides
  • Cell Cycle / drug effects
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Humans
  • Imatinib Mesylate
  • Mice
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Piperazines
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Protein Kinases* / metabolism
  • Protein Kinases* / physiology
  • Pyrimidines / therapeutic use
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Benzamides
  • Piperazines
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Pyrimidines
  • Imatinib Mesylate
  • Protein Kinases