Discovery and development of folic-acid-based receptor targeting for imaging and therapy of cancer and inflammatory diseases

Acc Chem Res. 2008 Jan;41(1):120-9. doi: 10.1021/ar7000815. Epub 2007 Jul 27.


In order to avoid the toxicities associated with prescription drug use today, we have explored novel methods for delivering drugs selectively to pathologic cells, thereby avoiding the collateral damage that accompanies their uptake by healthy cells. In this Account, we describe our quest for the ideal targeted therapeutic agent. This effort began with a search for ligands that would bind selectively to pathologic cells, displaying no affinity for healthy cells. After identification of an optimal targeting ligand, effort was focused on construction of linkers that would carry the attached drug to pathologic cells with receptors for the selected ligand. In the case of cancer, we exploited the well-characterized up-regulation of folate receptors on malignant cells to target folate-linked pharmaceuticals to cancer tissues in vivo. Drugs that have been linked to folic acid for tumor-selective drug delivery to date include (i) protein toxins, (ii) chemotherapeutic agents, (iii) gene therapy vectors, (iv) oligonucleotides (including small interfering RNA (siRNA)), (v) radioimaging agents, (vi) magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) contrast agents, (vii) liposomes with entrapped drugs, (viii) radiotherapeutic agents, (ix) immunotherapeutic agents, and (x) enzyme constructs for prodrug therapy. Current clinical trials of four folate-linked drugs demonstrate that folate receptor-targeting holds great promise for increasing the potency while reducing toxicity of many cancer therapies. In the course of developing folate-conjugated drugs for cancer, we discovered that folate receptors are also overexpressed on activated (but not resting or quiescent) macrophages. Recognizing that activated macrophages either cause or contribute to such diseases as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, atherosclerosis, lupus, inflammatory osteoarthritis, diabetes, ischemia reperfusion injury, glomerulonephritis, sarcoidosis, psoriasis, Sjogren's disease, and vasculitis, we initiated studies aimed at developing folate-conjugated imaging and therapeutic agents for the diagnosis and treatment of such diseases. In very brief time, significant progress has been made towards identification of clinical candidates for targeted treatment of several inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. This Account summarizes the discovery and development of a variety of folate-targeted drugs for the diagnosis and therapy of cancers and inflammatory/autoimmune diseases.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents / chemistry*
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents / therapeutic use
  • Antineoplastic Agents / chemistry*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Autoimmune Diseases / diagnosis
  • Autoimmune Diseases / drug therapy*
  • Carrier Proteins / chemistry
  • Carrier Proteins / drug effects*
  • Drug Design*
  • Folate Receptors, GPI-Anchored
  • Folic Acid / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Receptors, Cell Surface / chemistry
  • Receptors, Cell Surface / drug effects*


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Carrier Proteins
  • Folate Receptors, GPI-Anchored
  • Receptors, Cell Surface
  • Folic Acid