Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide. Cisplatin has challenged cancer treatment; however, resistance and side effects hamper its use. New agents displaying improved activity and more reduced side effects relative to cisplatin are needed. In this work we present the synthesis, characterization and biological activities of three complexes with quinoline-substituted 2,2′:6′,2″-terpyridine ligand: [Pt(4′-(2-quin)-terpy)Cl](SOCF) (1), [Au(4′-(2-quin)-terpy)Cl](PF)·CHCN (2) and [Cu(4′-(2-quin)-terpy)Cl](PF) (3). The three complexes displayed a high antiproliferative activity in ovarian carcinoma cell line (A2780) and even more noticeable in a colorectal carcinoma cell line (HCT116) following the order 3 > 2 > 1. The complexes IC are at least 20 × lower than the IC displayed by cisplatin (15.4 μM) in HCT116 cell line while displaying at the same time, much reduced cytotoxicity in a normal dermal fibroblast culture. These cytotoxic activities seem to be correlated with the inclination angles of 2-quin unit to the central pyridine. Interestingly, all complexes can interact with calf-thymus DNA (CT-DNA) in vitro via different mechanisms, although intercalation seems to be the preferred mechanism at least for 2 and 3 at higher concentrations of DNA. Moreover, circular dichroism (CD) data seems to indicate that complex 3, more planar, induces a high destabilization of the DNA double helix (shift from B-form to Z-form). Higher the deviation from planar, the lower the cytotoxicity displayed by the complexes. Cellular uptake may be also responsible for the different cytotoxicity exhibited by complexes with 3 > 2 >1. Complex 2 seems to enter cells more passively while complex 1 and 3 might enter cells via energy-dependent and -independent mechanisms. Complexes 1-3 were shown to induce ROS are associated with the increased apoptosis and autophagy. Moreover, all complexes dissipate the mitochondrial membrane potential leading to an increased BAX/BCL-2 ratio that triggered apoptosis. Complexes 2 and 3 were also shown to exhibit an anti-angiogenic effect by significantly reduce the number of newly formed blood vessel in a CAM model with no toxicity in this in vivo model. Our results seem to suggest that the increased cytotoxicity of complex 3 in HCT116 cells and its potential interest for further translation to pre-clinical mice xenografts might be associated with: 1) higher % of internalization of HCT116 cells via energy-dependent and -independent mechanisms; 2) ability to intercalate DNA and due to its planarity induced higher destabilization of DNA; 3) induce intracellular ROS that trigger apoptosis and autophagy; 4) low toxicity in an in vivo model of CAM; 5) potential anti-angiogenic effect.
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