Small molecules targeted to the microtubule-Hec1 interaction inhibit cancer cell growth through microtubule stabilization
Highly expressed in cancer protein 1 (Hec1) is a subunit of the kinetochore (KT)-associated Ndc80 complex, which ensures proper segregation of sister chromatids at mitosis by mediating the interaction between KTs and microtubules (MTs). HEC1 mRNA and protein are highly expressed in many malignancies as part of a signature of chromosome instability. These properties render Hec1 a promising molecular target for developing therapeutic drugs that exert their anticancer activities by producing massive chromosome aneuploidy. A virtual screening study aimed at identifying small molecules able to bind at the Hec1-MT interaction domain identified one positive hit compound and two analogs of the hit with high cytotoxic, pro-apoptotic and anti-mitotic activities. The most cytotoxic analog (SM15) was shown to produce chromosome segregation defects in cancer cells by inhibiting the correction of erroneous KT-MT interactions. Live cell imaging of treated cells demonstrated that mitotic arrest and segregation abnormalities lead to cell death through mitotic catastrophe and that cell death occurred also from interphase. Importantly, SM15 was shown to be more effective in inducing apoptotic cell death in cancer cells as compared to normal ones and effectively reduced tumor growth in a mouse xenograft model. Mechanistically, cold-induced MT depolymerization experiments demonstrated a hyper-stabilization of both mitotic and interphase MTs. Molecular dynamics simulations corroborate this finding by showing that SM15 can bind the MT surface independently from Hec1 and acts as a stabilizer of both MTs and KT-MT interactions. Overall, our studies represent a clear proof of principle that MT-Hec1-interacting compounds may represent novel powerful anticancer agents.