Revisiting the role of dihydroorotate dehydrogenase as a therapeutic target for cancer

Pharmacol Ther. 2019 Mar;195:111-131. doi: 10.1016/j.pharmthera.2018.10.012. Epub 2018 Oct 19.


Identified as a hallmark of cancer, metabolic reprogramming allows cancer cells to rapidly proliferate, resist chemotherapies, invade, metastasize, and survive a nutrient-deprived microenvironment. Rapidly growing cells depend on sufficient concentrations of nucleotides to sustain proliferation. One enzyme essential for the de novo biosynthesis of pyrimidine-based nucleotides is dihydroorotate dehydrogenase (DHODH), a known therapeutic target for multiple diseases. Brequinar, leflunomide, and teriflunomide, all of which are potent DHODH inhibitors, have been clinically evaluated but failed to receive FDA approval for the treatment of cancer. Inhibition of DHODH depletes intracellular pyrimidine nucleotide pools and results in cell cycle arrest in S-phase, sensitization to current chemotherapies, and differentiation in neural crest cells and acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Furthermore, DHODH is a synthetic lethal susceptibility in several oncogenic backgrounds. Therefore, DHODH-targeted therapy has potential value as part of a combination therapy for the treatment of cancer. In this review, we focus on the de novo pyrimidine biosynthesis pathway as a target for cancer therapy, and in particular, DHODH. In the first part, we provide a comprehensive overview of this pathway and its regulation in cancer. We further describe the relevance of DHODH as a target for cancer therapy using bioinformatic analyses. We then explore the preclinical and clinical results of pharmacological strategies to target the de novo pyrimidine biosynthesis pathway, with an emphasis on DHODH. Finally, we discuss potential strategies to harness DHODH as a target for the treatment of cancer.

Keywords: Cancer metabolism; Combination therapy; DHODH inhibitors; Dihydroorotate dehydrogenase; Gene expression; Pyrimidine biosynthesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Humans
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Oxidoreductases Acting on CH-CH Group Donors / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Oxidoreductases Acting on CH-CH Group Donors / metabolism*
  • Pyrimidines / biosynthesis


  • Pyrimidines
  • Oxidoreductases Acting on CH-CH Group Donors
  • dihydroorotate dehydrogenase
  • pyrimidine