Molecular mechanisms of multidrug resistance in cancer chemotherapy

Pathol Res Pract. 1996 Jul;192(7):768-80. doi: 10.1016/S0344-0338(96)80099-9.


The occurrence of multidrug resistance (MDR) is one of the main obstacles in the successful chemotherapeutic treatment of cancer. MDR cell lines are resistant to the so-called naturally occurring anti-cancer drugs, such as anthracyclines, Vinca alkaloids and epipodophyllotoxins, but are not cross-resistant to alkylating agents, antimetabolites and cisplatin. So far, three separate forms of MDR have been characterized in more detail: classical MDR, non-Pgp MDR and atypical MDR. Although all three MDR phenotypes have much in common with respect to cross-resistance patterns, the underlying mechanisms certainly differ. Atypical MDR is associated with quantitative and qualitative alterations in topoisomerase II alpha, a nuclear enzyme that actively participates in the lethal action of cytotoxic drugs. Atypical MDR cells do not overexpress P-glycoprotein, and are unaltered in their ability to accumulate drugs. In this review we will focus on classical and non-Pgp MDR. The molecular mechanism of classical and non-Pgp MDR is transcriptional activation of membrane-bound transport proteins. These transport proteins belong to the ATP-binding cassette (ABC) superfamily of transport systems. The classical MDR phenotype is characterized by a reduced ability to accumulate drugs, due to activity of an energy-dependent uni-directional, membrane-bound, drug-efflux pump with broad substrate specificity. The classical MDR drug pump is composed of a transmembrane glycoprotein (P-glyco-protein-Pgp) with a molecular weight of 170 kD, and is, in man, encoded by the so-called multidrug resistance (MDR1) gene. Typically, non-Pgp MDR has no P-gly-coprotein expression, yet has about the same cross-resistance pattern as classical MDR. This non-Pgp MDR phenotype is caused by overexpression of the multidrug resistance-associated protein (MRP) gene, which encodes a 190 kD membrane-bound glycoprotein (MRP). MRP probably works by direct extrusion of cytotoxic drugs from the cell and/or by mediating sequestration of the drugs into intracellular compartments, both leading to a reduction in effective intracellular drug concentrations. For the classical MDR phenotype, evidence is accumulating that it plays a role indeed, in clinical drug resistance, especially in some hematological malignancies (acute myeloid leukemia, multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma) and solid tumors (soft tissue sarcomas and neuroblastoma). The association of MRP with clinical drug resistance has not been elaborated, yet, and studies on MRP expression in human cancer have just begun. We found that overexpression of MRP, as determined by RNase protection assay as well as by immunohistochemistry, occurs in several human cancers, among which are cancer of the lung, esophagus, breast and ovary, and leukemias. Further studies are indicated to establish whether elevated MRP expression at diagnosis is an unfavorable prognostic factor for clinical outcome of chemotherapy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Drug Resistance, Multiple*
  • Drug-Related Side Effects and Adverse Reactions*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Neoplasms, Experimental / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms, Experimental / genetics