Advances in the chemistry and pharmacology of ecteinascidins, a promising new class of anti-cancer agents

Curr Med Chem Anticancer Agents. 2001 Nov;1(3):257-76. doi: 10.2174/1568011013354561.


Ecteinascidins are marine natural products consisting of two or three linked tetrahydroisoquinoline subunits and an active carbinolamine functional group. Their potent antiproliferative activity against a variety of tumor cells has made them attractive candidates for development as anticancer agents. The lead compound, ecteinascidin 743 (ET 743), is currently in phase II clinical trials but the low amounts present in its natural source, the tunicate Ecteinascidia turbinata, made it necessary to develop efficient synthetic procedures. Recent improvements on the original synthesis are reviewed as well as new strategies starting from readily available cyanosafracin B. ET 743 is known to bind to the minor groove of DNA giving rise to a covalent adduct with the exocyclic amino group at position 2 of a guanine in a fashion similar to saframycin antibiotics. Some of the resulting complexes have been studied by a variety of biochemical and spectroscopic methods and also by computer simulations. The rules for sequence specificity have been well established (preferred targets are RGC and YGG, where R and Y stand for purine and pyrimidine, respectively), and it has been shown that binding of ET 743 to DNA is accompanied by minor groove widening and DNA bending towards the major groove. Although the precise target for antitumor action remains to be unambiguously defined, a role in affecting the transcriptional regulation of some inducible genes is rapidly emerging.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / chemical synthesis
  • Antineoplastic Agents / chemistry*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Crystallography, X-Ray
  • DNA, Neoplasm / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Isoquinolines / chemical synthesis
  • Isoquinolines / chemistry*
  • Isoquinolines / pharmacology*
  • Marine Toxins / chemical synthesis
  • Marine Toxins / chemistry*
  • Marine Toxins / pharmacology*
  • Molecular Conformation
  • Urochordata / chemistry*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • DNA, Neoplasm
  • Isoquinolines
  • Marine Toxins