Synthetic photoswitches have been known for many years, but their usefulness in biology, pharmacology, and medicine has only recently been systematically explored. Over the past decade photopharmacology has grown into a vibrant field. As the photophysical, pharmacodynamic, and pharmacokinetic properties of photoswitches, such as azobenzenes, have become established, they have been applied to a wide range of biological targets. These include transmembrane proteins (ion channels, transporters, G protein-coupled receptors, receptor-linked enzymes), soluble proteins (kinases, proteases, factors involved in epigenetic regulation), lipid membranes, and nucleic acids. In this review, we provide an overview of photopharmacology using synthetic switches that have been applied in vivo, i.e., in living cells and organisms. We discuss the scope and limitations of this approach to study biological function and the challenges it faces in translational medicine. The relationships between synthetic photoswitches, natural chromophores used in optogenetics, and caged ligands are addressed.
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