Thalidomide, well known for its potent teratogenicity, has been re-evaluated as a clinically effective drug for the treatment of multiple myeloma. Although the direct target of thalidomide had been unclear until recently, we identified cereblon (CRBN) as a primary direct target of this drug by affinity purification using ferrite glycidyl methacrylate (FG) beads in 2010. CRBN functions as a unique substrate receptor of cullin-RING ligase 4 (CRL4). Various ligands including thalidomide bind to CRBN and alter substrate specificity depending on compound shape, resulting in multiple beneficial effects and/or teratogenicity. Lenalidomide, a thalidomide derivative approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), induces the degradation of onco-proteins such as Ikaros and casein kinase 1 alpha (CK1α), resulting in anti-cancer effects. Recently, novel CRBN-binding compounds have been developed and their mechanisms of action have been analyzed, including identification of CRBN-related ubiquitin conjugating enzymes (E2s). Moreover, the 3D structure of several CRBN-ligand-substrate complexes has been determined. Ligands were shown to work as a molecular glue between CRBN and its neosubstrate. In addition, investigators have been recently developing CRBN-based proteolysis-targeting chimeras to achieve degradation of proteins of interest. In this review, the molecular mechanisms of classical and new CRBN-based drugs are described, and recent advances in this field are discussed.
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