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J Biol Chem. 1998 Aug 21;273(34):21682-91.

Leflunomide inhibits pyrimidine de novo synthesis in mitogen-stimulated T-lymphocytes from healthy humans.

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  • 1Purine Research Laboratory, United Medical and Dental Schools of Guy's and St. Thomas' Hospitals, London Bridge SE1 9RT, Great Britain.


The mode of action of Leflunomide, an immunomodulatory drug used in rheumatoid arthritis, is debated. This study, using 14C-labeled de novo purine and pyrimidine synthesis precursors, proves conclusively that the prime target in proliferating human T-lymphocytes is pyrimidine biosynthesis at the level of dihydroorotic-acid dehydrogenase. Leflunomide (25 and 50 microM), like Brequinar (0.5 and 1 microM), a demonstrated dihydroorotic-acid dehydrogenase inhibitor, was cytostatic, not cytotoxic, with proliferation being halted in the G1 phase. Both drugs restricted the normal 4-8-fold mitogen-induced expansion of pyrimidine pools over 72 h to concentrations found in nonstimulated T-cells and [14C]bicarbonate incorporation into UTP, ATP, and GTP. Uridine (50 microM) restored expansion of all pools, but [14C]bicarbonate incorporation into ATP and GTP only, not UTP. [14C]Hypoxanthine salvage was also restricted, indicating that purine salvage pathways are compromised likewise by both inhibitors. [14C]Glycine studies confirmed that restriction of de novo purine synthesis occurred secondary to inhibition of proliferation since this was reversed by uridine rescue, except at 100 microM Leflunomide. 100 microM Leflunomide markedly depleted ATP and GTP pools also, which would have serious consequences for ATP-dependent enzymes essential to the immune response, thereby explaining non-pyrimidine-related effects reported for Leflunomide at 100 microM and above.

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