Synthetic lethality: a framework for the development of wiser cancer therapeutics

Genome Med. 2009 Oct 27;1(10):99. doi: 10.1186/gm99.


The challenge in medical oncology has always been to identify compounds that will kill, or at least tame, cancer cells while leaving normal cells unscathed. Most chemotherapeutic agents in use today were selected primarily for their ability to kill rapidly dividing cancer cells grown in cell culture and in mice, with their selectivity determined empirically during subsequent animal and human testing. Unfortunately, most of the drugs developed in this way have relatively low therapeutic indices (low toxic dose relative to the therapeutic dose). Recent advances in genomics are leading to a more complete picture of the range of mutations, both driver and passenger, present in human cancers. Synthetic lethality provides a conceptual framework for using this information to arrive at drugs that will preferentially kill cancer cells relative to normal cells. It also provides a possible way to tackle 'undruggable' targets. Two genes are synthetically lethal if mutation of either gene alone is compatible with viability but simultaneous mutation of both genes leads to death. If one is a cancer-relevant gene, the task is to discover its synthetic lethal interactors, because targeting these would theoretically kill cancer cells mutant in the cancer-relevant gene while sparing cells with a normal copy of that gene. All cancer drugs in use today, including conventional cytotoxic agents and newer 'targeted' agents, target molecules that are present in both normal cells and cancer cells. Their therapeutic indices almost certainly relate to synthetic lethal interactions, even if those interactions are often poorly understood. Recent technical advances enable unbiased screens for synthetic lethal interactors to be undertaken in human cancer cells. These approaches will hopefully facilitate the discovery of safer, more efficacious anticancer drugs that exploit vulnerabilities that are unique to cancer cells by virtue of the mutations they have accrued during tumor progression.