Small-molecule chemical “probes” complement the use of molecular biology techniques to explore, validate, and generate hypotheses on the function of proteins in diseases such as cancer. Unfortunately, the poor selection and use of small-molecule reagents can lead to incorrect conclusions. Here, we illustrate examples of poor chemical tools and suggest best practices for the selection, validation, and use of high-quality chemical probes in cancer research. We also note the complexity associated with tools for novel drug modalities, exemplified by protein degraders, and provide advice and resources to facilitate the independent identification of appropriate small-molecule probes by researchers.
Validation of biological targets and pathways will be aided by a shared understanding of the criteria of potency, selectivity, and target engagement associated with small-molecule reagents (“chemical probes”) that enable that work. Interdisciplinary collaboration between cancer biologists, medicinal chemists, and chemical biologists and the awareness of available resources will reduce misleading data generation and interpretation, strengthen data robustness, and improve productivity in academic and industrial research.