Bioinspired nonheme iron complex that triggers mitochondrial apoptotic signalling pathway specifically for colorectal cancer cells

Yool Lee, Chaeun Oh, Jin Kim, Myong Suk Park, Woo Kyun Bae, Kyung Hyun Yoo, Seungwoo Hong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


The activation of dioxygen is the keystone of all forms of aerobic life. Many biological functions rely on the redox versatility of metal ions to perform reductive activation-mediated processes entailing dioxygen and its partially reduced species including superoxide, hydrogen peroxide, and hydroxyl radicals, also known as reactive oxygen species (ROS). In biomimetic chemistry, a number of synthetic approaches have sought to design, synthesize and characterize reactive intermediates such as the metal-superoxo, -peroxo, and -oxo species, which are commonly found as key intermediates in the enzymatic catalytic cycle. However, the use of these designed complexes and their corresponding intermediates as potential candidates for cancer therapeutics has scarcely been endeavored. In this context, a series of biomimetic first-row transition metal complexes bearing a picolylamine-based water-soluble ligand, [M(HN3O2)]2+ (M = Mn2+, Fe2+, Co2+, Cu2+; HN3O2 = 2-(2-(bis(pyridin-2-ylmethyl)amino)ethoxy)ethanol) were synthesized and characterized by various spectroscopic methods including X-ray crystallography and their dioxygen and ROS activation reactivity were evaluated in situ and in vitro. It turned out that among these metal complexes, the iron complex, [Fe(HN3O2)(H2O)]2+, was capable of activating dioxygen and hydrogen peroxide and produced the ROS species (e.g., hydroxyl radical). Upon the incubation of these complexes with different cancer cells, such as cervical, breast, and colorectal cancer cells (MDA-MB-231, AU565, SK-BR-3, HeLa S3, HT-29, and HCT116 cells), only the iron complex triggered cellular apoptosis specifically for colorectal cancer cells; the other metal complexes show negligible anti-proliferative activity. More importantly, the biomimetic complexes were harmless to normal cells and produced less ROS therein. The use of immunocytochemistry combined with western blot analysis strongly supported that apoptosis occurred via the intrinsic mitochondrial pathway; in the intracellular network, [Fe(HN3O2)(H2O)]2+ resulted in (i) the activation and/or production of ROS species, (ii) the induction of intracellular impaired redox balance, and (iii) the promotion of the mitochondrial apoptotic signaling pathway in colorectal cancer cells. The results have implications for developing novel biomimetic complexes in cancer treatments and for designing potent candidates with cancer-specific antitumor activity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)737-747
Number of pages11
JournalChemical Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - 21 Jan 2022

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© The Royal Society of Chemistry.


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