Inhibitors of apoptosis (IAPs) are a family of proteins that regulate cell death and inflammation. XIAP (X-linked IAP) is the only family member that suppresses apoptosis by directly binding to and inhibiting caspases. On the other hand, cIAPs suppress the activation of the extrinsic apoptotic pathway by preventing the formation of pro-apoptotic signaling complexes. IAPs are negatively regulated by IAP-antagonist proteins such as Smac/Diablo and ARTS. ARTS can promote apoptosis by binding and degrading XIAP via the ubiquitin proteasome-system (UPS). Smac can induce the degradation of cIAPs but not XIAP. Many types of cancer overexpress IAPs, thus enabling tumor cells to evade apoptosis. Therefore, IAPs, and in particular XIAP, have become attractive targets for cancer therapy. In this review, we describe the differences in the mechanisms of action between Smac and ARTS, and we summarize efforts to develop cancer therapies based on mimicking Smac and ARTS. Several Smac-mimetic small molecules are currently under evaluation in clinical trials. Initial efforts to develop ARTS-mimetics resulted in a novel class of compounds, which bind and degrade XIAP but not cIAPs. Smac-mimetics can target tumors with high levels of cIAPs, whereas ARTS-mimetics are expected to be effective for cancers with high levels of XIAP.
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