Zafirlukast Is a Promising Scaffold for Selectively Inhibiting TNFR1 Signaling

Nagamani Vunnam, Mu Yang, Chih Hung Lo, Carolyn Paulson, William D. Fiers, Evan Huber, Mary Jane Been, David M. Ferguson, Jonathan N. Sachs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) plays an important role in the pathogenesis of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease. The biological effects of TNF are mediated by binding to TNF receptors, TNF receptor 1 (TNFR1), or TNF receptor 2 (TNFR2), and this coupling makes TNFR1-specific inhibition by small-molecule therapies essential to avoid deleterious side effects. Recently, we engineered a time-resolved fluorescence resonance energy transfer biosensor for high-throughput screening of small molecules that modulate TNFR1 conformational states and identified zafirlukast as a compound that inhibits receptor activation, albeit at low potency. Here, we synthesized 16 analogues of zafirlukast and tested their potency and specificity for TNFR1 signaling. Using cell-based functional assays, we identified three analogues with significantly improved efficacy and potency, each of which induces a conformational change in the receptor (as measured by fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) in cells). The best analogue decreased NF-κB activation by 2.2-fold, IκBα efficiency by 3.3-fold, and relative potency by two orders of magnitude. Importantly, we showed that the analogues do not block TNF binding to TNFR1 and that binding to the receptor’s extracellular domain is strongly cooperative. Despite these improvements, the best candidate’s maximum inhibition of NF-κB is only 63%, leaving room for further improvements to the zafirlukast scaffold to achieve full inhibition and prove its potential as a therapeutic lead. Interestingly, while we find that the analogues also bind to TNFR2 in vitro, they do not inhibit TNFR2 function in cells or cause any conformational changes upon binding. Thus, these lead compounds should also be used as reagents to study conformational-dependent activation of TNF receptors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)270-282
Number of pages13
JournalACS Bio and Med Chem Au
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 21 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants to J.N.S. (R35GM131814).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Authors. Published by American Chemical Society.


  • Inflammatory diseases
  • NF-κB activation
  • TNF
  • TNFR1
  • ligand-independent interactions

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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