Intracellular disulfide reduction by phosphine-borane complexes: Mechanism of action for neuroprotection

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Phosphine-borane complexes are novel cell-permeable drugs that protect neurons from axonal injury in vitro and in vivo. These drugs activate the extracellular signal-regulated kinases 1/2 (ERK1/2) cell survival pathway and are therefore neuroprotective, but do not scavenge superoxide. In order to understand the interaction between superoxide signaling of neuronal death and the action of phosphine-borane complexes, their biochemical activity in cell-free and in vitro assays was studied by electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectrometry and using an intracellular dithiol reporter that becomes fluorescent when its disulfide bond is cleaved. These studies demonstrated that bis(3-propionic acid methyl ester) phenylphosphine-borane complex (PB1) and (3-propionic acid methyl ester) diphenylphosphine-borane complex (PB2) are potent intracellular disulfide reducing agents which are cell permeable. EPR and pharmacological studies demonstrated reducing activity but not scavenging of superoxide. Given that phosphine-borane complexes reduce cell injury from mitochondrial superoxide generation but do not scavenge superoxide, this implies a mechanism where an intracellular superoxide burst induces downstream formation of protein disulfides. The redox-dependent cleavage of the disulfides is therefore a novel mechanism of neuroprotection.HighlightsPhosphine borane complexes are neuroprotective molecules.They are cell permeable and reduce intracellular disulfides.EPR and pharmacological studies show absence of superoxide scavenging.Redox-dependent cleavage of disulfides is neuroprotective.

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