Bcl-2 inhibitors: small molecules with a big impact on cancer therapy

Cell Death Differ. 2009 Mar;16(3):360-7. doi: 10.1038/cdd.2008.137. Epub 2008 Sep 19.


Despite tremendous advances over the last 15 years in understanding fundamental mechanisms of apoptosis, this has failed to translate into improved cancer therapy for patients. However, there may now be light at the end of this long tunnel. Antiapoptotic Bcl-2 family members may be divided into two subclasses, one comprising Bcl-2, Bcl-X(L) and Bcl-w and the other Mcl-1 and Bcl2A1. Neutralization of both subclasses is required for apoptosis induction. Solution of the structure of antiapoptotic Bcl-2 family proteins has led to the design of novel small molecule inhibitors. Although many such molecules have been synthesized, rigorous verification of their specificity has often been lacking. Further studies have revealed that many putative Bcl-2 inhibitors are not specific and have other cellular targets, resulting in non-mechanism based toxicity. Two notable exceptions are ABT-737 and a related orally active derivative, ABT-263, which bind with high affinity to Bcl-2, Bcl-X(L) and Bcl-w and may prove to be useful tools for mechanistic studies. ABT-263 is in early clinical trials in lymphoid malignancies, small-cell lung cancer and chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and some patients have shown promising results. In in vitro studies, primary cells from patients with various B-cell malignancies are exquisitely sensitive to ABT-737, exhibiting novel morphological features of apoptosis including marked outer mitochondrial membrane rupture.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aniline Compounds* / chemistry
  • Aniline Compounds* / therapeutic use
  • Apoptosis / physiology*
  • Biphenyl Compounds* / chemistry
  • Biphenyl Compounds* / therapeutic use
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Humans
  • Lymphoma, Mantle-Cell / metabolism
  • Lymphoma, Mantle-Cell / pathology
  • Molecular Structure
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Nitrophenols* / chemistry
  • Nitrophenols* / therapeutic use
  • Piperazines / chemistry
  • Piperazines / therapeutic use
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / chemistry
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / metabolism
  • Sulfonamides* / chemistry
  • Sulfonamides* / therapeutic use


  • ABT-737
  • Aniline Compounds
  • Biphenyl Compounds
  • Nitrophenols
  • Piperazines
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2
  • Sulfonamides
  • navitoclax