ERE-dependent transcription and cell proliferation: Independency of these two processes mediated by the introduction of a sulfone function into the weak estrogen estrothiazine
The synthetic coumestrol derivative 6,12-dihydro-3-methoxy-1-benzopyrano[3,4-b][1,4]benzothiazin-6-one (estrothiazine, ESTZ) has been identified as a weak estrogen receptor α (ERα) ligand unable to compete with tritiated estradiol. The biological activity of this compound, supported by a methoxy group in position 3, seems mainly to result from its capacity to activate ERα dimerization without any participation of coactivators. In support of this view and referring to conventional estrogens, an ESTZ metabolism study conducted with hepatic human microsomes failed to provide any argument in favour of an estrogenic activity dependent on a metabolic conversion of the compound into hydroxylated metabolites with strong receptor activation ability. Interestingly, we failed to detect any oxidation of the sulfur atom of the compound. In the light of pharmacological literature data concerning sulfonylation, we assessed ERα-mediated activities generated by two sulfonylated ESTZ derivatives in which the methoxy group that plays a key role in its mechanism of action was maintained or removed. Sulfonylated ESTZ, even in its demethoxylated form, induced ERE-mediated transcriptions in MCF-7 breast cancer cells, without affecting the ERα turnover rate. In contrast to ESTZ, this compound failed to enhance the proliferation of ERα-positive breast cancer cells, suggesting that its sulfone function confers upon the receptor a capacity to elicit some of the known characteristics associated with estrogenic responses. Moreover, we demonstrated that this sulfone may contribute to ERα dimerization without any requirement of the methoxy group. Nevertheless, it seems to cooperate with this group, as reflected by a weak ability of the sulfonylated form of ESTZ to compete with tritiated estradiol for ERα-binding. Assessment of the docking of this compound within the ligand-binding domain of the receptor by molecular dynamics provided an explanation for this observation since the sulfone is engulfed in a small hydrophobic pocket involving the residues Leu-346, Leu-349, Ala-350 and Leu-384, also known to recruit coactivators. This work not only reports the sulfone functional group as a pharmacophore for estrogenic activity, but also opens new perspectives for the development of estrogenic molecules with therapeutic purpose and devoid of proliferative side effects.