Off-target toxicity is a common mechanism of action of cancer drugs undergoing clinical trials

Sci Transl Med. 2019 Sep 11;11(509):eaaw8412. doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aaw8412.


Ninety-seven percent of drug-indication pairs that are tested in clinical trials in oncology never advance to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. While lack of efficacy and dose-limiting toxicities are the most common causes of trial failure, the reason(s) why so many new drugs encounter these problems is not well understood. Using CRISPR-Cas9 mutagenesis, we investigated a set of cancer drugs and drug targets in various stages of clinical testing. We show that-contrary to previous reports obtained predominantly with RNA interference and small-molecule inhibitors-the proteins ostensibly targeted by these drugs are nonessential for cancer cell proliferation. Moreover, the efficacy of each drug that we tested was unaffected by the loss of its putative target, indicating that these compounds kill cells via off-target effects. By applying a genetic target-deconvolution strategy, we found that the mischaracterized anticancer agent OTS964 is actually a potent inhibitor of the cyclin-dependent kinase CDK11 and that multiple cancer types are addicted to CDK11 expression. We suggest that stringent genetic validation of the mechanism of action of cancer drugs in the preclinical setting may decrease the number of therapies tested in human patients that fail to provide any clinical benefit.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / toxicity*
  • CRISPR-Cas Systems / genetics
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Clinical Trials as Topic*
  • Clone Cells
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinases / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinases / metabolism
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm / drug effects
  • Gene Knockout Techniques
  • Genome, Human
  • Humans
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy
  • Quinolones / pharmacology
  • RNA Interference / drug effects
  • Up-Regulation / drug effects


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • OTS964
  • Quinolones
  • CDK11B protein, human
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinases