Sphingomyelinases and ceramidases are key enzymes of sphingolipid metabolism that regulate the formation and degradation of ceramide, one of the most intensely studied classes of sphingolipids.
Improved understanding of these enzymes that control not only the levels of ceramide but also the complex interconversion of sphingolipid metabolites has provided the foundation for the functional analysis of the roles of sphingolipids.
Our current understanding of the roles of various sphingolipids in the regulation of different cellular processes has come from loss-of-function/gain-of-function studies utilizing genetic deletion/downregulation/overexpression of enzymes of sphingolipid metabolism (e.g. knockout animals, RNA interference) and from the use of pharmacologic inhibitors of these same enzymes.
While genetic approaches to evaluate the functional roles of sphingolipid enzymes have been instrumental in advancing the field, the use of pharmacologic inhibitors has been equally important in identifying new roles for sphingolipids in important cellular processes.The latter also promises the development of novel therapeutic targets with implications for cancer therapy, inflammation, diabetes, and neurodegeneration.
In this review, we focus on the status and use of pharmacologic compounds that inhibit sphingomyelinases and ceramidases, and we will review the history, current uses and future directions for various small molecule inhibitors, and will highlight studies in which inhibitors of sphingolipid metabolizing enzymes have been used to effectively treat models of human disease.