Mechanism of action of antitumor drugs that interact with microtubules and tubulin

Curr Med Chem Anticancer Agents. 2002 Jan;2(1):1-17. doi: 10.2174/1568011023354290.


Microtubules, major structural components in cells, are the target of a large and diverse group of natural product anticancer drugs. Given the success of this class of drugs in cancer treatment, it can be argued that microtubules represent the single best cancer target identified to date. Microtubules are highly dynamic assemblies of the protein tubulin. They readily polymerize and depolymerize in cells, and they undergo two interesting kinds of dynamics called dynamic instability and treadmilling. These dynamic behaviors are crucial to mitosis, the process of chromosomal division to form new cells. Microtubule dynamics are highly regulated during the cell cycle by endogenous cellular regulators. In addition, many antitumor drugs and natural compounds alter the polymerization dynamics of microtubules, blocking mitosis, and consequently, inducing cell death by apoptosis. These drugs include several that inhibit microtubule polymerization at high drug concentrations, namely, the Vinca alkaloids, cryptophycins, halichondrins, estramustine, and colchicine. Another group of these compounds stimulates microtubule polymerization and stabilizes microtubules at high concentrations. These include Taxol, Taxotere, eleutherobins, epothilones, laulimalide, sarcodictyins, and discodermolide. Importantly, considerable evidence indicates that, at lower concentrations, these drugs have a common mechanism of action; they suppress the dynamics of microtubules without appreciably changing the mass of microtubules in the cell. The drugs bind to diverse sites on tubulin and at different positions within the microtubule, and they have diverse effects on microtubule dynamics. However, by their common mechanism of suppression microtubule dynamics, they all block mitosis at the metaphase/anaphase transition, and induce cell death.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic / chemistry
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic / metabolism
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic / pharmacology*
  • Binding, Competitive
  • Humans
  • Microtubules / drug effects*
  • Microtubules / metabolism
  • Models, Molecular
  • Tubulin / metabolism*
  • Vinca Alkaloids / chemistry
  • Vinca Alkaloids / metabolism
  • Vinca Alkaloids / pharmacology*


  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic
  • Tubulin
  • Vinca Alkaloids