Notch signaling represents a central pathway regulating hematopoiesis, stem cell differentiation, and malignant transformation in human cancer. Activation of highly conserved Notch1 receptors results in cleavage and release of an intracellular domain (ICN1). Following translocation to the nucleus, ICN1 forms a ternary complex with the transcriptional repressor CSL (CBF-1, Suppressor of Hairless and Lag-1) bound to cognate DNA. This event triggers a repressor-to-activator switch, as an interfacial groove is formed which recruits the Mastermind-Like (MAML1) co-activator protein. Activating mutations in NOTCH1 are found in more than 50% of patients with T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (T-ALL), promoting protein stability and establishing a direct link to disease pathogenesis. Pharmacologic efforts to target the Notch pathway in T-ALL have been directed at gamma secretase, a regulatory enzyme in Notch activation. Recently, the observed clinical resistance to gamma secretase inhibitors has been explained, in part, by additional mutations in the Notch-targeting ubiquitin ligase, Fbxw7, which further increases oncoprotein stability. Therefore, direct inhibitors of ICN1 function are highly desirable. Drawing upon insights afforded by the resolved crystal structure of the DNA-bound ICN1:MAML1:CSL complex, we synthesized a series of hydrocarbon stapled alpha-helical peptides targeting Notch (SAHNs) based on minimal motifs of the MAML protein predicted to engage the composite ICN1:CSL interface. Direct, high-affinity binding to purified components of the Notch complex was confirmed using surface plasmon resonance (SPR). Nuclear access of SAHN1 was confirmed using quantitative epifluorescent and confocal microscopy. Intracellular association with ICN1 and CSL was established using bidirectional affinity chromatography. Using a novel CSL-responsive reporter construct, we observed inhibition of endogenous Notch transactivation by SAHN1 in T-ALL cell lines. Furthermore, SAHN1 induces a dose-dependent knockdown of endogenous Notch1 target genes including HES1, HEY1 and cMYC in T-ALL cell lines. Remarkably, inhibition of Notch signaling by SAHN1 confers selective cytotoxicity at 48 hours in a panel of T-ALL cell lines with known mutations in NOTCH, including those resistant to gamma secretase inhibitors. Supporting an on-target mechanism of action, we have prepared a damaged analogue of SAHN1 containing a two-residue rearrangement (SAHN1D). SAHN1D possesses reduced binding affinity for the Notch complex and despite comparable intracellular access, SAHN1D lacks both transcriptional and cytotoxic effects on cultured T-ALL cell lines in vitro. Efficacy studies have also been performed in vivo using a novel murine model of T-ALL. In summary, we report here the design, biochemical characterization and translational rationale supporting the first direct inhibitor of the Notch transactivation complex in T-ALL.

Author notes

Disclosure:Employment: Michael Hancock, a collaborating author, is an employee of Invitrogen, Inc. He has contributed a cell line to these studies, which is not currently commercially available.