Characterization of novel small-molecule NRF2 activators: Structural and biochemical validation of stereospecific KEAP1 binding

Carlos Huerta, Xin Jiang, Isaac Trevino, Christopher F. Bender, Deborah A. Ferguson, Brandon Probst, Kerren K. Swinger, Vincent S. Stoll, Philip J. Thomas, Irina Dulubova, Melean Visnick, W. Christian Wigley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Background Semi-synthetic oleanane triterpenoid antioxidant inflammation modulators (tpAIMs) are small molecules that interact with KEAP1 cysteine residue 151 (C151) and activate NRF2. Exploration of the structure-activity relationship between the tpAIMs and KEAP1 is limited by the predominantly hydrocarbon nature of the oleanane triterpenoid pentacyclic ring structure. Therefore, we used novel, chemically-tractable, synthetic antioxidant inflammation modulators (sAIMs) to probe the stereoselectivity of the ligand-protein interaction. Methods We measured several parameters of NRF2 activation to assess the potency of sAIM enantiomers with natural (tpAIM-like) 4(S),5(S),10(R) or unnatural 4(R),5(R),10(S) configurations. Additionally, we determined the crystal structure of the KEAP1 BTB domain in complex with two different sAIMs. Results We found that the potencies of sAIM enantiomers in the natural configuration were similar to those of the tpAIM, RTA 405. Strikingly, sAIM enantiomers in the unnatural configuration were 10- to 40-fold less potent than their natural counterparts. Crystallographic studies of sAIMs in complex with the KEAP1 BTB domain demonstrated that these ligands form a covalent bond with C151 and revealed the presence of additional hydrogen bonds, Van der Waals interactions, and pi-stacking interactions. Conclusions Although KEAP1 C151 is required for NRF2 activation by tpAIMs and sAIMs, interactions with other KEAP1 residues are critical for the stereospecific recognition and potency of these ligands. General significance This work demonstrates that reversible cyanoenone Michael acceptors, such as the tpAIMs and sAIMs, can be specifically tuned to regulate redox sensitive cysteine residues on key signaling molecules, an approach with significant promise for innovative drug development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2537-2552
Number of pages16
JournalBiochimica et Biophysica Acta - General Subjects
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016


  • Kelch-like ECH-associated protein 1 (KEAP1)
  • Nuclear factor 2 (erythroid-derived 2-like factor) (NFE2L2 or NRF2)
  • Reactive cysteine residue
  • Synthetic antioxidant inflammation modulator AIM (sAIM)
  • Triterpenoid antioxidant inflammation modulator (tpAIM)
  • X-ray crystallography

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology


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