A synthetic analog of α-galactosylceramide induces macrophage activation via the TLR4-signaling pathways

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α-Galactosylceramide (α-GalCer), a bioactive glycolipid isolated from the marine sponge Agelas mauritianus, is a potent immunomodulator with therapeutic potential for the treatment of autoimmune diseases and cancer. The Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4), one of the promising molecular targets for immune-modulating drugs, is commonly expressed in innate immune cells especially macrophages and dendritic cells. Currently, whether α-GalCer can activate TLR4 signaling pathways remains unreported. In this study, we examined the effects of α-GalCer and its various structural analogs, CCL-1˜47, on TLR4 activation. We found that one α-GalCer analog (CCL-34), but not α-GalCer itself, strongly stimulated NF-κB activity in RAW 264.7 cells. CCL-34 activated NF-κB in a TLR4-dependent manner and stimulated TNF-α production in bone marrow cells of TLR4-functional C3H/HeN mice but not in those of TLR4-defective C3H/HeJ mice. Furthermore, CCL-34 treatment stimulated NF-κB activation and IL-8 production in a 293 cell line constitutively expressing human TLR4, MD-2 and CD14. Treatment of RAW 264.7 cells with CCL-34 also activated TLR4-downstream mitogen-activated protein kinases (ERK, JNK and p38), induced expression of TLR4-downstream genes (TNF-α, IL-6, IL-1β and iNOS) and promoted production of cytokines characteristic of activated macrophages. CCL-34-treated RAW 264.7 cells acquired a distinct morphology similar to that of LPS-activated macrophages and exhibited higher phagocytotic activity. Moreover, treatment with a TLR4-neutalizing antibody inhibited the CCL-34-induced morphological alteration. In summary, we identify a novel synthetic compound CCL-34 that can activate macrophages via TLR4-dependent signaling pathways. Our results suggest that CCL-34 is an immune modulator and may serve as a potential drug lead for immunotherapy.

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