Strategies for reversing drug resistance

Oncogene. 2003 Oct 20;22(47):7512-23. doi: 10.1038/sj.onc.1206951.


Drug resistance, intrinsic or acquired, is a problem for all chemotherapeutic agents. In this review, we examine numerous strategies that have been tested or proposed to reverse drug resistance. Included among these strategies are approaches targeting the apoptosis pathway. Although the process of apoptosis is complex, it provides several potential sites for therapeutic intervention. A variety of targets and approaches are being pursued, including the suppression of proteins inhibiting apoptosis using antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs), and small molecules targeted at proteins that modulate apoptosis. An alternate strategy is based on numerous studies that have documented methylation of critical regions in the genome in human cancers. Consequently, efforts have been directed at re-expressing genes, including genes that affect drug sensitivity, using 5-azacytidine and 2'-deoxy-5-azacytidine (DAC, decitabine) as demethylating agents. While this strategy may be effective as a single modality, success will most likely be achieved if it is used to modulate gene expression in combination with other modalities such as chemotherapy. At a more basic level, attempts have been made to modulate glutathione (GSH) levels. Owing to its reactivity and high intracellular concentrations, GSH has been implicated in resistance to several chemotherapeutic agents. Several approaches designed to deplete intracellular GSH levels have been pursued including the use of buthionine-(S,R)-sulfoxime (BSO), a potent and specific inhibitor of gamma-glutamyl cysteine synthetase (gamma-GCS), the rate-limiting step in the synthesis of GSH, a hammerhead ribozyme against gamma-GCS mRNA to downregulate specifically its levels and targeting cJun expression to reduce GSH levels. Alternate strategies have targeted p53. The frequent occurrence of p53 mutations in human cancer has led to the development of numerous approaches to restore wild-type (wt) p53. The goals of these interventions are to either revert the malignant phenotype or enhance drug sensitivity. The approach most extensively investigated has utilized one of several viral vectors. An alternate approach, the use of small molecules to restore wt function to mutant p53, remains an option. Finally, the conceptually simplest mechanism of resistance is one that reduces intracellular drug accumulation. Such reduction can be effected by a variety of drug efflux pumps, of which the most widely studied is P-glycoprotein (Pgp). The first strategy utilized to inhibit Pgp function relied on the identification of non-chemotherapeutic agents as competitors. Other approaches have included the use of hammerhead ribozymes against the MDR-1 gene and MDR-1-targeted ASOs. Although modulation of drug resistance has not yet been proven to be an effective clinical tool, we have learned an enormous amount about drug resistance. Should we succeed, these pioneering basic and clinical studies will have paved the road for future developments.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / metabolism
  • Apoptosis
  • DNA Methylation
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm*
  • Glutathione / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53 / metabolism


  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53
  • Glutathione