Synthetic lethality as an engine for cancer drug target discovery

Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2020 Jan;19(1):23-38. doi: 10.1038/s41573-019-0046-z. Epub 2019 Nov 11.


The first wave of genetically targeted therapies for cancer focused on drugging gene products that are recurrently mutated in specific cancer types. However, mutational analysis of tumours has largely been exhausted as a strategy for the identification of new cancer targets that are druggable with conventional approaches. Furthermore, some known genetic drivers of cancer have not been directly targeted yet owing to their molecular structure (undruggable oncogenes) or because they result in functional loss (tumour suppressor genes). Functional genomic screening based on the genetic concept of synthetic lethality provides an avenue to discover drug targets in all these areas. Although synthetic lethality is not a new idea, recent advances, including CRISPR-based gene editing, have made possible systematic screens for synthetic lethal drug targets in human cancers. Such approaches have broad potential to drive the discovery of the next wave of genetic cancer targets and ultimately the introduction of effective medicines that are still needed for most cancers.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Drug Discovery*
  • Gene Editing*
  • Genetic Therapy
  • Humans
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy*
  • Neoplasm Proteins / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Neoplasm Proteins / genetics
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Synthetic Lethal Mutations / drug effects*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Neoplasm Proteins