The E3 ubiquitin ligase RFFL is an apoptotic inhibitor highly expressed in cancers and its knockdown suppresses cancer cell growth and sensitizes to chemotherapy. RFFL also participates in peripheral protein quality control which removes the functional cell surface ΔF508-CFTR channel and reduces the efficacy of pharmaceutical therapy for cystic fibrosis (CF). Although RFFL inhibitors have therapeutic potential for both cancer and CF, they remain undiscovered. Here, a chemical array screening has identified α-tocopherol succinate (αTOS) as an RFFL ligand. NMR analysis revealed that αTOS directly binds to RFFL’s substrate-binding region without affecting the E3 enzymatic activity. Consequently, αTOS inhibits the RFFL-substrate interaction, ΔF508-CFTR ubiquitination and elimination from the plasma membrane of epithelial cells, resulting in the increased functional CFTR channel. Among the α-tocopherol (αTOL) analogs we tested, only αTOS inhibited the RFFL-substrate interaction and increased the cell surface ΔF508-CFTR, depending on RFFL expression. Similarly, the unique proapoptotic effect of αTOS was dependent on RFFL expression. Thus, unlike other αTOL analogs, αTOS acts as an RFFL protein-protein interaction inhibitor which may explain its unique biological properties among αTOL analogs. Moreover, αTOS may act as a CFTR stabilizer, a novel class of drugs that extend cell surface ΔF508-CFTR lifetime.
Declaration of Competing Interest The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.