High Content Screening Using New U2OS Reporter Cell Models Identifies Harmol Hydrochloride as a Selective and Competitive Antagonist of the Androgen Receptor

Dellal H, Boulahtouf A, Alaterre E, Cuenant A, Grimaldi M, Bourguet W, Gongora C, Balaguer P, Pourquier P
Cells - vol. 9 (2020)


Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed malignancy in men. Its growth mainly relies on the activity of the androgen receptor (AR), justifying the use of androgen deprivation therapy as a gold standard treatment for the metastatic disease. Inhibition of the androgen axis using second generation antagonists has improved patients’ survival, but is systematically confronted to resistance mechanisms, leading to a median survival that does not exceed 5 years. Counteracting this resistance has been the object of a large number of investigations, with a particular emphasis towards the identification of new AR inhibitors, whether they antagonize the receptor by a competitive or a non-competitive binding. To this end, many high content screens have been performed, to identify new non-steroidal AR antagonists, using a variety of approaches, but reported somewhat controversial results, depending on the approach and on the cell model that was used for screening. In our study, we used the U2OS osteosarcoma cells stably transfected with AR or ARv7 and a luciferase reporter as a previously validated model to screen the Prestwick Phytochemical library. The results of our screen identified ellipticine, harmol, and harmine hydrochloride as confirmed hits. Surprisingly, we could demonstrate that harmol hydrochloride, previously identified as a non-competitive inhibitor of AR or a weak inhibitor of androgen signaling, was actually a competitive antagonist of AR, which inhibits the growth of VCaP prostate cancer line, at concentrations for which it did not affect the growth of the AR negative DU145 and PC3 cells. Interestingly, we also report for the first time that harmol hydrochloride was selective for AR, as it could not alter the activity of other nuclear receptors, such as the glucocorticoid receptor (GR), the progesterone receptor (PR), or the mineralocorticoid receptor (MR). Additionally, we demonstrate that, conversely to enzalutamide, harmol hydrochloride did not show any agonistic activity towards the pregnane X receptor (PXR), a master regulator of drug metabolism. Together, our results shed light on the importance of the cellular context for the screening of new AR antagonists. They further indicate that some of the potential hits that were previously identified may have been overlooked.