First identified in the early 1980s as retroviral oncogenes, the Raf proteins have been the objects of intense research. The discoveries 10 years later that the Raf family members (Raf-1, B-Raf, and A-Raf) are bona fide Ras effectors and upstream activators of the ubiquitous ERK pathway increased the interest in these proteins primarily because of the central role that this cascade plays in cancer development. The important role of Raf in cancer was corroborated in 2002 with the discovery of B-Raf genetic mutations in a large number of tumors. This led to intensified drug development efforts to target Raf signaling in cancer. This work yielded not only recent clinical successes but also surprising insights into the regulation of Raf proteins by homodimerization and heterodimerization. Surprising insights also came from the hunt for new Raf targets. Although MEK remains the only widely accepted Raf substrate, new kinase-independent roles for Raf proteins have emerged. These include the regulation of apoptosis by suppressing the activity of the proapoptotic kinases, ASK1 and MST2, and the regulation of cell motility and differentiation by controlling the activity of Rok-α. In this review, we discuss the regulation of Raf proteins and their role in cancer, with special focus on the interacting proteins that modulate Raf signaling. We also describe the new pathways controlled by Raf proteins and summarize the successes and failures in the development of efficient anticancer therapies targeting Raf. Finally, we also argue for the necessity of more systemic approaches to obtain a better understanding of how the Ras-Raf signaling network generates biological specificity.
Keywords: Raf kinases; apoptosis; cancer; kinase inhibitors; signal transduction.