Multidrug resistance: molecular mechanisms and clinical relevance

Cancer Chemother Pharmacol. 1997;40 Suppl:S3-8. doi: 10.1007/s002800051053.


Multidrug resistance (MDR) describes the phenomenon of simultaneous resistance to unrelated drugs. It has been a decade since the P-glycoprotein (Pgp) gene, which is associated with a form of MDR caused by reduced drug accumulation, was cloned. Thus, this would seem to be an appropriate time to evaluate our understanding of this form of MDR. The two MDR genes identified in humans to date (the MDR-associated protein [MRP] and Pgp genes) are structurally similar and both are members of the ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporter family. Although the physiological role of MRP is not yet understood, one Pgp gene (mdr1) plays an important role in the blood-tissue barrier and the other (mdr2/3) is involved in phospholipid transport in the liver. A variety of compounds (chemosensitizing agents) can interfere with Pgp and MRP function; such agents may improve the efficacy of conventional therapy when used in combination with such regimens. Determining the roles cellular MDR mechanisms play in patients' response to chemotherapy is a major challenge. Using Pgp and MRP as molecular markers to detect MDR tumor cells is technically demanding, and solid tumors in particular contain heterogeneous cell populations. Since MDR requires Pgp or MRP gene expression, clinically relevant gene expression thresholds need to be established; sequential samples from individual patients are valuable for correlating MDR gene expression with the clinical course of disease. Studies in leukemias, myelomas, and some childhood cancers show that Pgp expression correlates with poor response to chemotherapy. However, in some cases, inclusion of a reversing or chemosensitizing agent such as verapamil or cyclosporin A has improved clinical efficacy. Such agents may inactivate Pgp in tumor cells or affect Pgp function in normal cells, resulting in altered pharmacokinetics. It would be interesting to determine whether patients who fail treatment in the presence of chemosensitizing agents acquire other MDR mechanisms. The ABC transporter superfamily in prokaryotes and eukaryotes is involved in the transport of substrates ranging from ions to large proteins. Of the 15 or more ABC transporter genes characterized in human cells, two (Pgp and MRP) cause MDR. Therefore, it would be relevant to determine the number of such genes present in the human genome; however, extrapolating from the number of ABC transporter genes in bacteria, the human gene probably contains a minimum of 200 ABC transporter superfamily members. Thus, tumor cells can potentially use many ABC transporters to mount resistance to known and future therapeutic agents. The challenge will be to determine which ABC transporters are clinically relevant. Despite the potential of tumor cells to protect themselves, a variety of malignancies can be successfully treated with chemotherapy. This may provide unique insights.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily B, Member 1 / biosynthesis
  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily B, Member 1 / genetics*
  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / biosynthesis
  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / genetics*
  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / metabolism*
  • Drug Resistance, Multiple / genetics*
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm / genetics*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Proteins / biosynthesis
  • Neoplasm Proteins / genetics*
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology*


  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily B, Member 1
  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters
  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Neoplasm Proteins