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J Mol Biol. 2009 Apr 24;388(1):144-58. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2009.03.003. Epub 2009 Mar 10.

PAC-1 activates procaspase-3 in vitro through relief of zinc-mediated inhibition.

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Department of Biochemistry, Roger Adams Laboratory, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL 61801, USA.


The direct induction of apoptosis has emerged as a powerful anticancer strategy, and small molecules that either inhibit or activate certain proteins in the apoptotic pathway have great potential as novel chemotherapeutic agents. Central to apoptosis is the activation of the zymogen procaspase-3 to caspase-3. Caspase-3 is the key "executioner" caspase, catalyzing the hydrolysis of a multitude of protein substrates within the cell. Interestingly, procaspase-3 levels are often elevated in cancer cells, suggesting a compound that directly stimulates the activation of procaspase-3 to caspase-3 could selectively induce apoptosis in cancer cells. We recently reported the discovery of a compound, PAC-1, which enhances procaspase-3 activity in vitro and induces apoptotic death in cancer cells in culture and in mouse xenograft models. Described herein is the mechanism by which PAC-1 activates procaspase-3 in vitro. We show that zinc inhibits the enzymatic activity of procaspase-3 and that PAC-1 strongly activates procaspase-3 in buffers that contain zinc. PAC-1 and zinc form a tight complex with one another, with a dissociation constant of approximately 42 nM. The combined data indicate that PAC-1 activates procaspase-3 in vitro by sequestering inhibitory zinc ions, thus allowing procaspase-3 to autoactivate itself to caspase-3. The small-molecule-mediated activation of procaspases has great therapeutic potential and thus this discovery of the in vitro mechanism of action of PAC-1 is critical to the development and optimization of other procaspase-activating compounds.

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