DNA repair in resistance to alkylating anticancer drugs

Int J Clin Pharmacol Ther. 2002 Aug;40(8):354-67. doi: 10.5414/cpp40354.


The major critical target of alkylating antineoplastic drugs belonging to the group of methylating and chloroethylating agents is DNA. DNA alkylation lesions can be repaired by the action of alkyltransferase (MGMT) and base excision repair enzymes. The major cell killing and apoptotic alkylation lesions are O6-methylguanine (O6MeG) and O6-chloroethylguanine. O6MeG causes mispairing with thymine which is erroneously processed by mismatch repair (MMR), leading to secondary lesions that potently trigger the mitochondrial apoptotic pathway. Apoptosis induced by O6MeG is a late cellular response that requires cell proliferation to occur. Data are available indicating that DNA double-strand breaks are actively involved as the ultimate trigger of apoptosis. O6MeG and O6-chloroethylguanine are repaired by the specific action of MGMT thus counteracting the killing effects of the lesions. The expression of MGMT is highly variable and is often increased in tumors compared to normal tissue. Determination of MGMT activity in various tumors showed low expression in brain, pancreas and skin and high expression in testicle, breast, colorectal, lung and ovarian tumors. Distribution profiles of MGMT revealed non-random distribution indicating the existence of subpopulations exhibiting low and high activity. Since MGMT is one of the most important factors determining drug resistance to alkylation, strategies have been developed to inhibit MGMT in tumors with the aid of MGMT inhibitors and overexpression of MGMT in healthy, non-target tissue (e.g. blood stem cells) by transferring a mutated form of MGMT inaccessible to inhibition. Targeting MGMT inhibitors to tumors may further enhance the antineoplastic efficiency of alkylating agents. The role of base excision repair, Fos and p53 in drug resistance to alkylation is also discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alkyl and Aryl Transferases / metabolism
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Alkylating / pharmacology*
  • DNA Repair / drug effects*
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm*
  • Guanine / analogs & derivatives*
  • Guanine / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / pathology


  • Antineoplastic Agents, Alkylating
  • Guanine
  • O-(6)-methylguanine
  • Alkyl and Aryl Transferases