Cancer therapies based on targeted protein degradation - lessons learned with lenalidomide

Nat Rev Clin Oncol. 2021 Jul;18(7):401-417. doi: 10.1038/s41571-021-00479-z. Epub 2021 Mar 2.


For decades, anticancer targeted therapies have been designed to inhibit kinases or other enzyme classes and have profoundly benefited many patients. However, novel approaches are required to target transcription factors, scaffolding proteins and other proteins central to cancer biology that typically lack catalytic activity and have remained mostly recalcitrant to drug development. The selective degradation of target proteins is an attractive approach to expand the druggable proteome, and the selective oestrogen receptor degrader fulvestrant served as an early example of this concept. Following a long and tragic history in the clinic, the immunomodulatory imide drug (IMiD) thalidomide was discovered to exert its therapeutic activity via a novel and unexpected mechanism of action: targeting proteins to an E3 ubiquitin ligase for subsequent proteasomal degradation. This discovery has paralleled and directly catalysed myriad breakthroughs in drug development, leading to the rapid maturation of generalizable chemical platforms for the targeted degradation of previously undruggable proteins. Decades of clinical experience have established front-line roles for thalidomide analogues, including lenalidomide and pomalidomide, in the treatment of haematological malignancies. With a new generation of 'degrader' drugs currently in development, this experience provides crucial insights into class-wide features of degraders, including a unique pharmacology, mechanisms of resistance and emerging therapeutic opportunities. Herein, we review these past experiences and discuss their application in the clinical development of novel degrader therapies.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Drug Development / methods
  • Drug Development / trends
  • Drugs, Investigational / isolation & purification
  • Drugs, Investigational / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Lenalidomide / therapeutic use*
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy* / adverse effects
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy* / methods
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Proteolysis / drug effects*
  • Proteome / drug effects
  • Proteome / metabolism


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Drugs, Investigational
  • Proteome
  • Lenalidomide