Targeted cancer therapy: conferring specificity to cytotoxic drugs

Acc Chem Res. 2008 Jan;41(1):98-107. doi: 10.1021/ar700108g. Epub 2007 Aug 18.


The therapeutic activity of most anticancer drugs in clinical use is limited by their general toxicity to proliferating cells, including some normal cells. Although, chemists continue to develop novel cytotoxic agents with unique mechanisms of action, many of these compounds still lack tumor selectivity and have not been therapeutically useful. Monoclonal antibodies that bind to specific markers on the surface of tumor cells offer an alternative therapy that is tumor specific and thus less toxic. Although highly selective, very few monoclonal antibodies are therapeutically useful since they only display modest cell killing activity. The linkage of monoclonal antibodies to highly cytotoxic drugs can be viewed as a means of (a) conferring higher tumor selectivity to cytotoxic drugs that are too toxic to be used on their own or (b) conferring cell killing power to monoclonal antibodies that are tumor-specific but not sufficiently cytotoxic. This Account provides a brief history of the development of antibody-drug conjugates and shows how the lessons learned from the first generation of conjugates has guided the development of more effective antitumor agents. The three components of antibody-drug conjugates, that is, the monoclonal anitbody, the cytotoxic drug, and the linker connecting the drug to the antibody, have been methodically studied and optimized. The antimitotic drug maytansine was chosen for use in the targeted delivery approach because of its high in vitro potency. Analogues of maytansine bearing a disulfide substituent that allowed linkage to monoclonal antibodies via disulfide bonds were prepared. These analogues retain the high potency of the parent drug. The stability of the disulfide link in antibody-maytansinoid conjugates was varied by introduction of methyl substituents on the carbon atoms geminal to the disulfide link. The optimized disulfide linker was stable in circulation in vivo. The circulation half-life of the cytotoxic drug was increased from just a few hours for the unconjugated drug to several days for the conjugate. Upon binding of the conjugate to the tumor cell, internalization and lysosomal processing released the potent cytotoxic agent inside the cell. These conjugates displayed high target-specific cytotoxicity in vitro. The antitumor activity of these targeted agents was superior to that of the antibodies alone or the standard anticancer drugs in human tumor xenograft models. Several conjugates from this new class of tumor-targeted anticancer agents are currrently undergoing clinical evaluation. The progress made in the targeted delivery approach and initial clinical results opens the door to the future development of highly potent drugs that were too toxic on their own to be therapeutically useful.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / chemistry
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / pharmacology
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / therapeutic use
  • Antineoplastic Agents / chemistry
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Cell Survival / drug effects
  • Drug Design*
  • Humans
  • Immunotoxins / chemistry
  • Immunotoxins / pharmacology
  • Immunotoxins / therapeutic use*
  • Maytansine / chemistry
  • Maytansine / pharmacology
  • Maytansine / therapeutic use*
  • Molecular Structure
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Immunotoxins
  • Maytansine