Based on the structural skeleton of natural products boeravinones, two types of 6H-chromeno[3,4-b]quinoline derivatives were designed and synthesized by nitrogen atom substitution strategy. Then, their cytotoxic activities were evaluated against six human tumor cell lines including HepG2 (hepatocellular carcinoma), A2780 (ovarian cancer), Hela (cervical cancer), HCT116 (colorectal cancer), SW1990 (pancreatic cancer), and MCF7 (breast cancer). The results showed that compounds ZML-8 and ZML-14 exhibited robust inhibitory activities against HepG2 cells with IC values of 0.58 and 1.94 μM, respectively. In addition, ZML-8 and ZML-14 showed higher selectivity against HepG2 and L-02 cells than Topotecan. Mechanistically, ZML-8 and ZML-14 not only induced cell cycle arrest in the G2/M phase and cell apoptosis, but also dose-dependently inhibited topoisomerase I activity and induced DNA damage in HepG2 cells. Molecular docking showed that ZML-8 and ZML-14 could interact with topoisomerase I-DNA complex with a similar binding mode to Topotecan. Inhibitory activities of these two compounds on topoisomerase I were then confirmed in both cell-free systems and in whole-cell lysates. Taken together, compounds ZML-8 and ZML-14 merit further development as a new generation of non-camptothecin topoisomerase I inhibitors for the treatment of cancer.
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