Keeping the Rhythm: hERG and Beyond in Cardiovascular Safety Pharmacology

Clemens Möller


Expert Rev Clin Pharmacol. 2010;3(3):321-329. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Following its involvement in life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias, the catchword 'hERG' has become infamous in the drug discovery community. The blockade of the ion channel coded by the human ether-á-go-go-related gene (hERG) has been correlated to a prolongation of the QT interval in the ECG, which again is correlated to a potential risk of a life-threatening polymorphic ventricular tachycardia – torsades de pointes (TdP). Therefore, in vitro investigations for blockade of this ion channel have become a standard, starting early in most drug discovery projects and often accompanying the whole project; at some stage, scientists in many medicinal chemistry programs have to deal with hERG channel liabilities. Data for the compound effects on hERG channel activity are generally part of the safety pharmacology risk assessment in regulatory submissions and, at this stage, are ideally conducted in compliance with good laboratory practice. With the withdrawal of clobutinol from the market, owing to its perceived risk of introducing TdP, the importance of the hERG channel has very recently been reconfirmed. Despite being of such importance for drug discovery, the relevance and impact of hERG data are sometimes misinterpreted, as there are drugs that block the hERG-coded ion channel but do not cause TdP, and drugs that cause TdP but do not block the hERG channel. This review aims to provide an overview of TdP, including the cardiac action potential and the ion channels involved in it, as well as on the relevance and interpretation of in vitro hERG channel data and their impact for drug discovery projects. Finally, novel cardiac safety test systems beyond in vitro hERG channel screening are discussed.


Pharmacology studies have been performed for many years and constitute an important part of the nonclinical evaluation of pharmaceuticals prior to first administration to humans. They can be divided into three categories: primary pharmacodynamic, secondary pharmacodynamic and safety pharmacology studies.[1] This review is primarily concerned with those safety pharmacology studies that investigated the effects of compounds on ventricular repolarization – a subject of intense research over the last few years – relatively early in the drug discovery process.