Chronic treatment with azathioprine, a highly effective anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive agent, profoundly increases the risk for development of unusually aggressive cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma. Its ultimate metabolite, 6-thioguanine (6-TG) nucleotide, is incorporated in DNA of skin cells, and upon exposure to UVA radiation, causes oxidative stress, followed by damage of DNA and associated proteins. The acetylenic tricyclic bis(cyano enone) TBE-31 is a strong inhibitor of inflammation and a potent inducer of the Keap1/Nrf2/ARE pathway, which orchestrates the expression of a large network of cytoprotective genes. We now report that long-term (five days per week for four weeks) topical daily applications of small (200 nmol) quantities of TBE-31 cause a robust systemic induction of the Keap1/Nrf2/ARE pathway and decreases the 6-TG incorporation in DNA of skin, blood, and liver of azathioprine-treated mice, indicating extraordinary bioavailability and efficacy. In addition, TBE-31, at nanomolar concentrations, protects cells with 6-TG in their genomic DNA against oxidative stress caused by UVA radiation through induction of the Keap1/Nrf2/ARE pathway. At the same 6-TG DNA levels, Keap1-knockout cells, in which the pathway is constitutively upregulated, are highly resistant to UVA radiation-induced oxidative stress. The protective effects of both the Keap1-knockout genotype and TBE-31 are completely lost in the absence of transcription factor Nrf2. Our findings suggest that compounds of this kind are excellent candidates for mechanism-based chemoprotective agents against conditions in which oxidative stress and inflammation underlie disease pathogenesis. Moreover, their potential skin patch incorporation for transdermal delivery is an exciting possibility.
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