Direct inhibition of c-Myc-Max heterodimers by celastrol and celastrol-inspired triterpenoids
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionOncoTarget. 2015, 6 (32), 32380-32395. 10.18632/oncotarget.6116
Many oncogenic signals originate from abnormal protein-protein interactions that are potential targets for small molecule inhibitors. However, the therapeutic disruption of these interactions has proved elusive. We report here that the naturally-occurring triterpenoid celastrol is an inhibitor of the c-Myc (Myc) oncoprotein, which is over-expressed in many human cancers. Most Myc inhibitors prevent the association between Myc and its obligate heterodimerization partner Max via their respective bHLH-ZIP domains. In contrast, we show that celastrol binds to and alters the quaternary structure of the pre-formed dimer and abrogates its DNA binding. Celastrol contains a reactive quinone methide group that promiscuously forms Michael adducts with numerous target proteins and other free sulfhydryl-containing molecules. Interestingly, triterpenoid derivatives lacking the quinone methide showed enhanced specificity and potency against Myc. As with other Myc inhibitors, these analogs rapidly reduced the abundance of Myc protein and provoked a global energy crisis marked by ATP depletion, neutral lipid accumulation, AMP-activated protein kinase activation, cell cycle arrest and apoptosis. They also inhibited the proliferation of numerous established human cancer cell lines as well as primary myeloma explants that were otherwise resistant to JQ1, a potent indirect Myc inhibitor. N-Myc amplified neuroblastoma cells showed similar responses and, in additional, underwent neuronal differentiation. These studies indicate that certain pharmacologically undesirable properties of celastrol such as Michael adduct formation can be eliminated while increasing selectivity and potency toward Myc and N-Myc. This, together with their low in vivo toxicity, provides a strong rationale for pursuing the development of additional Myc-specific triterpenoid derivatives.