The tumor suppressor programmed cell death 4 (Pdcd4) exerts its function by inhibiting protein translation initiation. Specifically, it displaces the scaffold protein eukaryotic initiation factor 4G (eIF4G) from its binding to the eukaryotic initiation factor 4A (eIF4A). Thereby, Pdcd4 inhibits the helicase activity of eIF4A, which is necessary for the unwinding of highly structured 5’ untranslated regions (UTRs) of messenger RNAs (mRNAs) often found in oncogenes like c-myc to make them accessible for the translation machinery and subsequent protein production. Overexpression of Pdcd4 inhibits tumorigenesis in vitro and in vivo and inversely, Pdcd4 knockout mice show enhanced tumor formation. In line, Pdcd4 is lost in various tumor types and proposed as prognostic factor in colon carcinomas. Unlike most other tumor suppressors that are rendered nonfunctional by mutations (e.g., p53), Pdcd4 loss is not attributable to mutational inactivation. It is regulated via translational repression by microRNAs and increased degradation of the protein under tumor promoting, inflammatory conditions and mitogens. Specifically, proteasomal degradation of Pdcd4 is controlled by p70 S6 Kinase (p70S6K)-mediated phosphorylation in its degron sequence (serines 67, 71 and 76). Stimulation of the PI3K-AKT-mTOR pathway by growth factors, hormones and cytokines initiates p70S6K activity. Phosphorylated Pdcd4 is subsequently recognized by the E3 ubiquitin ligase beta-transducin repeats-containing protein (β-TrCP) and marked with a polyubiquitin tail to be detected by the 26S proteasome for degradation. β-TrCP represents the substrate specific recognition subunit of the ubiquitin ligase complex responsible for protein-protein interaction with Pdcd4 as substrate for ubiquitin transfer and subsequent proteasomal disassembly.
The first part of the present work aimed at identifying novel stabilizers of the tumor suppressor Pdcd4 in a high throughput screen (HTS). As assay design, a fragment of Pdcd4 from amino acid 39 to 91, containing the phosphorylation sensitive degron sequence, was fused to a luciferase reporter gene construct. Stable expression of this Pdcd4(39-91)luciferase (Pdcd4(39-91)luc) fusion protein in HEK 293 cells served as read-out for the Pdcd4 protein amount to be detected in a high throughput compatible cell-based assay. Loss of Pdcd4(39-91)luc was induced by treatment with 12-O-
tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA), a phorbolester, which activates the PI3K signaling cascade leading to degradation of Pdcd4. The cut-off for hit definition was set at >50% activity in rescuing the Pdcd4(39-91)luc signal from TPA-induced degradation. Activity was calculated relative to the difference of DMSO- and TPA-treated cells (ΔDMSO-TPA = RLUDMSO-RLUTPA). Initial screening of a protein kinase inhibitor library (PKI) revealed hit substances expected to show Pdcd4 stabilizing activity by inhibition of kinases involved in Pdcd4 downregulation, e.g., the mTOR inhibitor rapamycin, the PI3K inhibitors wortmannin and LY294002 and the PKC inhibitors GF 109203X and Ro 31-8220.
The Molecular Targets Laboratory (MTL) of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Frederick, USA, hosts one of the largest collections of crude natural product extracts as well as a big substance libraries from pure synthetic sources. Screening of over 15 000 pure compounds and over 135 000 natural product extracts identified 46 pure and 42 extract hits as Pdcd4 stabilizers. For nine synthetic and six natural product derived compounds (after bioassay-guided fractionation), dose-dependent activities for recovering the TPA-induced Pdcd4(39-91)luc loss defined IC50s in the low micromolar range. Most importantly, these compounds were confirmed to stabilize endogenous Pdcd4 protein levels from forced degradation as well. This result proved the assay design to be highly representative for endogenous cellular mechanisms regulating Pdcd4 protein stability. The next step was to stratify the hit substances according to their likely mechanism of action to be located either up- or downstream of the p70S6K-mediated phosphorylation of Pdcd4. Therefore, phosphorylation of S6, as proto-typical p70S6K target, was analyzed and uncovered two natural derived compounds to influence p70S6K activity. Four substances did not affect p70S6K phosphorylation activity and were therefore considered to stabilize Pdcd4 by acting downstream, i.e. on the β-TrCP-mediated proteasomal degradation.
In the second part of this work, one of these compounds, namely the sesquiterpene lactone erioflorin, isolated by bioassay-guided fraction from the active extract of Eriophyllum lanatum, Asteraceae, was further characterized in detail with respect to its molecular mechanism of action. Erioflorin dose-dependently protected both Pdcd4(39-91)luc and endogenous Pdcd4 protein from TPA-induced degradation with IC50s of 1.28 and 2.64 μM, respectively. Pdcd4 stabilizing activity was maximal at 5 μM erioflorin. Up to this concentration, erioflorin was verified not to inhibit p70S6K activity. In addition, it was observed that erioflorin rescued Pdcd4(39-91)luc from both, wild type and constitutively active p70S6K-mediated downregulation. Only wild type p70S6K was inhibitable by the mTOR inhibitor rapamycin which served as an upstream acting control. To study the next section of Pdcd4 regulation, i.e. recognition by the E3 ubiquitin ligase β-TrCP, Pdcd4(39-91)luc and endogenous Pdcd4 were immunoprecipitated from whole cell extracts with the corresponding antibodies. In this key experiment, treatment with TPA increased overexpressed β-TrCP binding to both and this coimmunoprecipitation could be strongly reduced by erioflorin treatment. This result strongly pointed to an inhibitory mechanism of the β-TrCP specific binding to Pdcd4 by erioflorin. In addition, erioflorin disrupted the binding of in vitro transcribed/translated β-TrCP to Pdcd4 in an in vitro interaction assay to exclude nonspecific intracellular signals. Furthermore, polyubiquitination of Pdcd4 was decreased by erioflorin treatment as well. To clarify questions regarding specificity of erioflorin for the E3 ubiquitin ligase β-TrCP, stability of another important β-TrCP target was explored, i.e. the tumor suppressor inhibitor of kappa B alpha (IκBα). Indeed, the tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFα)-mediated loss of IκBα could be prevented by erioflorin cotreatment. On the other hand, the E3 ubiquitin ligase von Hippel Lindau protein (pVHL) was left unaffected as its target hypoxia inducible factor 1 alpha (HIF-1α) could not be stabilized from oxygen-dependent degradation by erioflorin treatment. These results argued strongly for erioflorin being a specific inhibitor of β-TrCP-mediated protein degradation. Functional consequences of erioflorin treatment were investigated by observing its influence on the transcriptional activities of the transformation marker activator protein 1 (AP-1, an indirect downstream target of Pdcd4) and nuclear factor κB (NF-κB which is directly inhibited by IκBα). Indeed, erioflorin showed significant inhibition of AP-1 and NF-κB reporter constructs at 5 μM, a concentration for which an impact on cell viability was excluded. Finally to characterize the significance of erioflorin in a cell-based tumorigenesis assay, the highly invasive colon carcinoma cell line RKO was tested in a two dimensional migration assay. Erioflorin was discovered to significantly lower cell migration in a wound closure assay.
In conclusion, development of a high throughput compatible cell-based reporter assay successfully identified novel substances from pure synthetic and natural product derived background as potent stabilizers of the tumor suppressor Pdcd4. In addition, this work aimed at elucidating the detailed mechanism of action of the sesquiterpene lactone erioflorin from Eriophyllum lanatum, Asteraceae. Erioflorin was discovered to inhibit the E3 ubiquitin ligase β-TrCP, thereby preventing protein degradation of tumor suppressors like Pdcd4 and IκBα. This may offer the possibility to more specifically target protein degradation and generate less adverse side effects by blocking a particular E3 ubiquitin ligase compared to general proteasome inhibition.