Preservation of genomic integrity is an essential process for cell homeostasis. DNA-damage response (DDR) promotes faithful transmission of genomes in dividing cells by reversing the extrinsic and intrinsic DNA damage, and is required for cell survival during replication. Radiation and genotoxic drugs have been widely used in the clinic for years to treat cancer but DNA repair mechanisms are often associated with chemo- and radio-resistance. To increase the efficacy of these treatments, inhibitors of the major components of the DDR such as ATM (ataxia telangiectasia mutated), ATR (ATM and Rad3-related), DNA-PK (DNA-dependent protein kinase, catalytic subunit), Chk1 (checkpoint protein 1) and Chk2 (checkpoint protein 2) have been used to confer radio- and/or chemosensitivity upon cancer cells. The elucidation of the molecular mechanisms of DNA repair and the discovery that tumors are frequently repair-deficient provide a therapeutic opportunity to selectively target this deficiency. Genetic mutations in the DNA repair genes constitute not only the initiating event of the cancer cell but also its weakness since the mutated gene is often needed by the cancer cell to maintain its own survival. This weakness has been exploited to specifically kill the tumor cells while sparing the normal ones, a concept known as 'synthetic lethality'. Recent efforts in the design of cancer therapies are directed towards exploiting synthetic lethal interactions with cancer-associated mutations in the DDR. In this review, we will discuss the latest concepts in targeting DNA repair mechanisms in cancer and the novel and promising compounds currently in clinical trials.
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