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Issue 4, 2021
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Targeting RNA with small molecules: from fundamental principles towards the clinic

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Recent advances in our understanding of RNA biology have uncovered crucial roles for RNA in multiple disease states, ranging from viral and bacterial infections to cancer and neurological disorders. As a result, multiple laboratories have become interested in developing drug-like small molecules to target RNA. However, this development comes with multiple unique challenges. For example, RNA is inherently dynamic and has limited chemical diversity. In addition, promiscuous RNA-binding ligands are often identified during screening campaigns. This Tutorial Review overviews important considerations and advancements for generating RNA-targeted small molecules, ranging from fundamental chemistry to promising small molecule examples with demonstrated clinical efficacy. Specifically, we begin by exploring RNA functional classes, structural hierarchy, and dynamics. We then discuss fundamental RNA recognition principles along with methods for small molecule screening and RNA structure determination. Finally, we review unique challenges and emerging solutions from both the RNA and small molecule perspectives for generating RNA-targeted ligands before highlighting a selection of the “Greatest Hits” to date. These molecules target RNA in a variety of diseases, including cancer, neurodegeneration, and viral infection, in cellular and animal model systems. Additionally, we explore the recently FDA-approved small molecule regulator of RNA splicing, risdiplam, for treatment of spinal muscular atrophy. Together, this Tutorial Review showcases the fundamental role of chemical and molecular recognition principles in enhancing our understanding of RNA biology and contributing to the rapidly growing number of RNA-targeted probes and therapeutics. In particular, we hope this widely accessible review will serve as inspiration for aspiring small molecule and/or RNA researchers.

Graphical abstract: Targeting RNA with small molecules: from fundamental principles towards the clinic

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Article information

13 Oct 2020
First published
18 Jan 2021

Chem. Soc. Rev., 2021,50, 2224-2243
Article type
Tutorial Review

Targeting RNA with small molecules: from fundamental principles towards the clinic

J. P. Falese, A. Donlic and A. E. Hargrove, Chem. Soc. Rev., 2021, 50, 2224
DOI: 10.1039/D0CS01261K

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