From identification of the BTK kinase to effective management of leukemia

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BTK is a cytoplasmic protein-tyrosine kinase, whose corresponding gene was isolated in the early 1990s. BTK was initially identified by positional cloning of the gene causing X-linked agammaglobulinemia and independently in a search for new kinases. Given the phenotype of affected patients, namely lack of B-lymphocytes and plasma cells with the ensuing inability to mount humoral immune responses, BTK inhibitors were anticipated to have beneficial effects on antibody-mediated pathologies, such as autoimmunity. In contrast to, for example, the SRC-family of cytoplasmic kinases, there was no obvious way in which structural alterations would yield constitutively active forms of BTK, and such mutations were also not found in leukemias or lymphomas. In 2007, the first efficient inhibitor, ibrutinib, was reported and soon became approved both in the United States and in Europe for the treatment of three B-cell malignancies, mantle cell lymphoma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia and Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia. Over the past few years, additional inhibitors have been developed, with acalabrutinib being more selective, and recently demonstrating fewer clinical adverse effects. The antitumor mechanism is also not related to mutations in BTK. Instead tumor residency in lymphoid organs is inhibited, making these drugs highly versatile. BTK is one of the only 10 human kinases that carry a cysteine in the adenosine triphosphate-binding cleft. As this allows for covalent, irreversible inhibitor binding, it provides these compounds with a highly advantageous character. This quality may be crucial and bodes well for the future of BTK-modifying medicines, which have been estimated to reach annual multi-billion dollar sales in the future.

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