The Bcl-2 family: structures, interactions and targets for drug discovery Academic Article uri icon


  • Two phylogenetically and structurally distinct groups of proteins regulate stress induced intrinsic apoptosis, the programmed disassembly of cells. Together they form the B cell lymphoma-2 (Bcl-2) family. Bcl-2 proteins appeared early in metazoan evolution and are identified by the presence of up to four short conserved sequence blocks known as Bcl-2 homology (BH) motifs, or domains. The simple BH3-only proteins bear only a BH3-motif and are intrinsically disordered proteins and antagonize or activate the other group, the multi-motif Bcl-2 proteins that have up to four BH motifs, BH1-BH4. Multi-motif Bcl-2 proteins are either pro-survival or pro-apoptotic in action and have remarkably similar α-helical bundle structures that provide a binding groove formed from the BH1, BH2, and BH3-motifs for their BH3-bearing antagonists. In mammals a network of interactions between Bcl-2 members regulates mitochondrial outer membrane permeability (MOMP) and efflux of cytochrome c and other death inducing factors from mitochondria to initiate the apoptotic caspase cascade, but the molecular events leading to MOMP are uncertain. Dysregulation of the Bcl-2 family occurs in many diseases and pathogenic viruses have assimilated pro-survival Bcl-2 proteins to evade immune responses. Their role in disease has made the Bcl-2 family the focus of drug design attempts and clinical trials are showing promise for 'BH3-mimics', drugs that mimic the ability of BH3-only proteins to neutralize selected pro-survival proteins to induce cell death in tumor cells. This review focuses on the structural biology of Bcl-2 family proteins, their interactions and attempts to harness them as targets for drug design.

publication date

  • 2015