Inhibitors of histone deacetylase (HDAC) are an emerging class of anticancer agents. They induce hyperacetylation in chromatin usually resulting in activation of certain genes. They induce terminal cell differentiation and / or apoptosis in cancer cells. Histone deacetylase activity is recruited by co-repressor proteins to certain regions of the chromatin and aberrant histone acetylation caused by that recruitment is responsible for the pathogenesis of certain cancers on a molecular level. Inhibitors of HDAC have been identified in natural sources and also synthetic inhibitors are available. The best studied inhibitor is trichostatin A, a hydroxamic acid that exerts its activity by complexa-tion of a zinc ion that is supposed to mediate the acetamide cleavage at the catalytic site. There are several synthetic hydroxamic acids that bear resemblance to trichostatin. Another class of potent inhibitors are naturally occurring and synthetic cyclotetrapeptides that all contain an unusual amino acid with an epoxyketone, ketone or hydroxamic acid function in the side chain. Phenylacetate, phenylbutyrate, butyrate and similar short chain fatty acids are also weak inhibitors. Further inhibitors from natural sources are the epoxide depudecin and depsipeptide FR 901228. The benzamide MS-275 belongs to a new class of synthetic HDAC inhibitors and displays oral activity in animal models. First clinical studies have shown that histone hyperacetylation can be achieved safely in humans and that treatment of cancer is possible. Thus, inhibitors of HDAC are one of the most promising class of new anticancer agents. New screening assays are useful tools that will facilitate identification of further inhibitors.
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