Iridium(III) complexes are largely studied as anti-cancer complexes due to their excellent anti-cancer activity. In this article, two new iridium(III) complexes [Ir(piq)(THPIP)]PF (THPIP = 2,4-di-tert-butyl-6-(1H-imidazo[4,5-f][1,10]phenanthrolin-2-yl)phenol, piq = deprotonated 1-phenylisoquinoline) (Ir1) and [Ir(bzq)(THPIP)]PF (bzq = deprotonated benzo[h]quinolone) (Ir2) were synthesized. 3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide (MTT) assays showed that complex Ir1 exhibits moderate activity (IC = 29.9 ± 4.6 μM) and Ir2 shows high cytotoxicity (IC = 9.8 ± 1.8 μM) against BEL-7402 cells. Further studies on the mechanism showed that Ir1 and Ir2 induced apoptosis by changing the mitochondrial membrane potential, Ca release, ROS accumulation, and cell cycle arrest at the S phase. The complexes can effectively inhibit cell colony formation and migration. The expression of B-cell lymphoma-2 (Bcl-2) family proteins, PI3K (phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase), AKT (protein kinase B), mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin), and p-mTOR was studied by immunoblotting. Complexes Ir1 and Ir2 downregulated the expression of anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-2 and increased the expression of autophagy-related proteins of Beclin-1 and LC3-II. Further experiments showed that the complexes inhibited the production of glutathione (GSH) and increased the amounts of malondialdehyde (MDA). Fluorescence of HMGB1 was significantly increased. We also investigated the effect of the complexes on the expression of genes using RNA-sequence analysis, we further calculated the lowest binding energies between the complexes and proteins using molecular docking. Taken together, the above results indicated that complexes Ir1 and Ir2 induce apoptosis in BEL-7402 cells through a ROS-mediated mitochondrial dysfunction and inhibition of the PI3K/AKT/mTOR signaling pathway.
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