ABCB4 is expressed at the canalicular membrane of hepatocytes. This ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporter is responsible for the secretion of phosphatidylcholine into bile canaliculi. Missense genetic variations of ABCB4 are correlated with several rare cholestatic liver diseases, the most severe being progressive familial intrahepatic cholestasis type 3 (PFIC3). In a repurposing strategy to correct intracellularly retained ABCB4 variants, we tested 16 compounds previously validated as cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) correctors.
The maturation, intracellular localization and activity of intracellularly retained ABCB4 variants were analyzed in cell models after treatment with CFTR correctors. In addition, in silico molecular docking calculations were performed to test the potential interaction of CFTR correctors with ABCB4.
We observed that the correctors C10, C13 and C17, as well as the combinations of C3+C18 and C4+C18, allowed the rescue of maturation and canalicular localization of four distinct traffic-defective ABCB4 variants. However, such treatments did not permit a rescue of the phosphatidylcholine secretion activity of these defective variants and were also inhibitory of the activity of wild type ABCB4. In silico molecular docking analyses suggest that these CFTR correctors might directly interact with transmembrane domains and/or ATP-binding sites of the transporter.
Our results illustrate the uncoupling between the traffic and the activity of ABCB4 since the same molecules can rescue the traffic of defective variants while they inhibit the secretion activity of the transporter. We expect that this study will help to design new pharmacological tools with potential clinical interest.

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