Author: Prof. Dr. med. Peter Altmeyer

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Last updated on: 29.10.2020

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Alkylantien; Alkylanzias; Alkylating compounds; (e) Alkylating agents

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Alkylating cytostatics or alkylants are extremely reactive substances which covalently bind to nucleophilic groups (e.g. amino, carboxyl, hydroxyl, phosphate and sulfhydryl groups) of DNA, RNA or proteins and transfer alkyl residues (predominantly methyl and ethyl groups) to these groups. In higher concentrations, alkylants can also break the covalent bonds within the DNA strands.

Bifunctional alkylants, i.e. those which are provided with two or more functional groups, can cause a covalent linking of bases of the DNA within a strand ("intrastrand cross-link") or between strands ("interstrand cross-link"). Strand breaks and cross-links cause far more serious damage to the DNA, and thus to the cell, than monofunctional alkylations.

The high reactivity of these compounds, which are associated with considerable side effects, led to the development of the oxazaphosphorins cyclophosphamide and ifosfamide, which are transport forms of a "prodrug". These compounds require enzymatic activation by cytochrome P-450-dependent monooxygenases to unfold their therapeutic activity. The bifunctional alkyl agents also include platinum complexes and mitomycins, whose ability to form "cross-links" has been experimentally proven.

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Nitrogen-Lost-Derivatives (Lost= abbreviation of the names of the developers Lommel and Steinkopf)


Sulphonic alkyl ester


Platinum compounds


Pharmacodynamics (Effect)
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The drug effects of cytostatic drugs are thus based on an inhibition of DNA replication. Alkylants are mutagenic and carcinogenic. They are used in toxicology as a reference for carcinogenicity testing. Even though alkylants have been further developed over the years, it is clear on critical examination that the specificity of these therapeutics has not yet been significantly improved.

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Alkylancias are used in lymphomas, leukaemia, breast and lung cancer and sarcomas. Nitrogen-Lost has been used for a long time (mainly in the USA) in the external therapy of cutaneous T-cell lymphomas. They are particularly important in the treatment of malignant brain tumours (gliobalstomes).

Undesirable effects
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The most common adverse drug reactions include hair loss, nausea, vomiting, anemia and immunosuppression. The destructive effect on DNA affects mainly fast growing cell lines such as mucous membrane, hair root, gonadal epithelia and bone marrow cells (myelotoxic). They can also have nephrotoxic, ototoxic and neurotoxic effects (central and peripheral neuropathies).

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  1. Meyer U (2006): The history of alkylancias. Pharmacy in our time 35: 104 - 109


Last updated on: 29.10.2020