Design of Tetrazolium Cations for the Release of Antiproliferative Formazan Chelators in Mammalian Cells

Zoufeng Xu, Yu Shien Sung, Elisa Tomat

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Cancer cells generally present a higher demand for iron, which plays crucial roles in tumor progression and metastasis. This iron addiction provides opportunities to develop broad spectrum anticancer drugs that target iron metabolism. In this context, prochelation approaches are investigated to release metal-binding compounds under specific conditions, thereby limiting off-target toxicity. Here, we demonstrate a prochelation strategy inspired by the bioreduction of tetrazolium cations widely employed to assess the viability of mammalian cells. We designed a series of tetrazolium-based compounds for the intracellular release of metal-binding formazan ligands. The combination of reduction potentials appropriate for intracellular reduction and an N-pyridyl donor on the formazan scaffold led to two effective prochelators. The reduced formazans bind as tridentate ligands and stabilize low-spin Fe(II) centers in complexes of 2:1 ligand-to-metal stoichiometry. The tetrazolium salts are stable in blood serum for over 24 h, and antiproliferative activities at micromolar levels were recorded in a panel of cancer cell lines. Additional assays confirmed the intracellular activation of the prochelators and their ability to affect cell cycle progression, induce apoptotic death, and interfere with iron availability. Demonstrating the role of iron in their intracellular effects, the prochelators impacted the expression levels of key iron regulators (i.e., transferrin receptor 1 and ferritin), and iron supplementation mitigated their cytotoxicity. Overall, this work introduces the tetrazolium core as a platform to build prochelators that can be tuned for activation in the reducing environment of cancer cells and produce antiproliferative formazan chelators that interfere with cellular iron homeostasis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15197-15206
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of the American Chemical Society
Issue number28
StatePublished - Jul 19 2023
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Catalysis
  • General Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Colloid and Surface Chemistry


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