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Inhibition of the anti-apoptotic machinery of cancer cells is a promising therapeutic approach that has driven the development of an important class of compounds termed "BH3 mimetics". These novel small molecules mimic BH3-only proteins by antagonizing the pro-survival function of anti-apoptotic proteins, thereby inducing apoptosis in cancer cells. To qualify as an authentic BH3 mimetic, a compound must function directly on the mitochondria of a cell of known anti-apoptotic dependence, must directly and selectively inhibit the anti-apoptotic protein with high-affinity binding, and must induce mitochondrial outer membrane permeabilization (MOMP) and apoptosis in a BAX/BAK-dependent manner. While many BH3 mimetics have entered clinical trials, the lack of a reliable validation assay to directly test the mitochondrial activity of new BH3 mimetic candidates has resulted in many misleading reports of agents touted as BH3 mimetics despite their off-target mechanisms of action. BH3 profiling probes the activity of a compound at the mitochondrial level by measuring cytochrome c release as a surrogate marker for MOMP. We propose a comprehensive biochemical toolkit consisting of BH3 profiling in parallel with high-throughput Annexin V/Hoechst viability testing to validate BH3 mimetic candidates. We tested our toolkit on eighteen different putative BH3 mimetics using a set of standardized cell lines of known anti-apoptotic dependence. Included in this set of cell lines is an apoptosis refractory BAX/BAK DKO control line to detect compounds that function independently of the BCL-2 family. Taken together, this rapid, efficient means of testing will prove advantageous as the demand for BH3 mimetics increases, particularly in the quest to identify and develop more potent MCL-1 inhibitors for use in the clinic. We strongly urge researchers utilizing BH3 mimetics in their work to use the potent and selective compounds identified with this validation toolkit instead of those lacking such potency and selectivity.


Mariana Villalobos-Ortiz, Jeremy Ryan, Thelma N Mashaka, Joseph T Opferman, Anthony Letai. BH3 profiling discriminates on-target small molecule BH3 mimetics from putative mimetics. Cell death and differentiation. 2020 Mar;27(3):999-1007

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PMID: 31332296

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