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Biochem Pharmacol. 1996 Oct 25;52(8):1227-33.

Transcriptional upregulation of gamma-globin by phenylbutyrate and analogous aromatic fatty acids.

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Clinical Pharmacology Branch, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, USA.


Phenylbutyrate has been shown recently to induce fetal hemoglobin (HbF) production in patients with sickle cell anemia and beta thalassemia. We have now examined related aromatic fatty acids in order to define the range of active structures and identify plausible mechanisms of action. Structure-function analysis revealed that for effective stimulation of HbF in erythroid precursors: (1) the ideal length for the aliphatic side chain is four carbons; (2) oxygen or sulfur substitutions in the carboxylic chain are allowed, as evidenced by the equal or increased activity of phenoxypropionate, benzylthioglycolate, and benzyloxyacetate compared with phenylbutyrate; and (3) blocking the carboxylate group by conversion to the amide form greatly reduces potency. Molecular analysis indicated that the prototype agent, phenylbutyrate, increases HbF production through transcriptional activation of the gamma-globin gene. The latter contains a butyrate responsive promoter known to up-regulate transcription in the presence of short-chain fatty acids of three to five carbons. To determine whether stimulation of an element in this promoter by phenylbutyrate and its analogues might contribute to their mechanism of action, we used a transient expression system involving K562 erythroleukemia cells transfected with a luciferase reporter gene driven by the minimum gamma-globin promoter. Transcriptional activation in this experimental system correlated well with the capacity of an aromatic fatty acid to increase HbF production in erythroid precursors (r = 0.94). Our studies identify potent analogues of phenylbutyrate for the treatment of beta-chain hemoglobinopathies, and suggest that stimulation of a butyrate responsive promoter may be responsible for their activity.

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