The proteasome inhibitor bortezomib remains the only ubiquitin pathway effector to become a drug (VELCADE®) and has become a successful treatment for hematological malignancies. While producing a global cellular effect, proteasome inhibitors have not triggered the catastrophe articulated initially in terms such as "buildup of cellular garbage". Proteasome inhibitors, in fact, do have a therapeutic window, although in the case of the prototype bortezomib it is small owing to peripheral neuropathy, myelosuppression and, as recently reported, cardiotoxicity . Currently, several second-generation molecules are undergoing clinical evaluation to increase this window. An alternative strategy is to target ubiquitin pathway enzymes acting at non-proteasomal sites-E1, E2, and E3, associated with ubiquitin conjugation, and deubiquitylating enzymes ("DUBs")-that act locally on selected targets rather than on the whole cell. Inhibitors (or activators, in some cases) of these enzymes should be developable as selective antitumor agents with toxicity profiles superior to that of bortezomib. Various therapeutic hypotheses follow from known cellular mechanisms of these target enzymes; most hypotheses relate to cancer, reminiscent of the FDA-approved protein kinase inhibitors now marketed. Since ubiquitin tagging controls the cellular content, activity, or compartmentation of proteins associated with disease, inhibitors or activators of ubiquitin conjugation or deconjugation are predicted to have an impact on disease. For practical and empirical reasons, inhibitors of ubiquitin pathway enzymes have been the favored therapeutic avenue. In approximately the time that has elapsed since the approval of bortezomib in 2003, there has been some progress in developing potential anticancer drugs that target various ubiquitin pathway enzymes. An E1 inhibitor and inhibitors of E3 are now in clinical trial, with some objective responses reported. Appropriate assays and/or rational design may uncover improved inhibitors of these enzymes, as well as E2 and DUBs, for further development. Presently, it should become clear whether one or both of the two general strategies for ubiquitin-based drug discovery will lead to truly superior new medicines for cancer and other diseases. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Ubiquitin Drug Discovery and Diagnostics.
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