Discovery of novel benzohydroxamate-based histone deacetylase 6 (HDAC6) inhibitors with the ability to potentiate anti-PD-L1 immunotherapy in melanoma


  • 1College of Pharmacy, Gannan Medical University, Ganzhou, China.
  • 2School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Guangdong Provincial Key Laboratory of New Drug Screening, Southern Medical University, Guangzhou, China.
  • 3Instrumental Analysis Center, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, China.
  • 4School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Zhengzhou University, Zhengzhou, China.


In this study, a novel series of histone deacetylases 6 (HDAC6) inhibitors containing polycyclic aromatic rings were discovered and evaluated for their pharmacological activities. The most potent compound 10c exhibited high HDAC6 inhibitory activity (IC50 = 261 nM) and excellent HDAC6 selectivity (SI = 109 for HDAC6 over HDAC3). 10c also showed decent antiproliferative activity in vitro with IC50 of 7.37–21.84 μM against four cancer cell lines, comparable to that of tubastatin A (average IC50 = 6.10 μM). Further mechanism studies revealed that 10c efficiently induced apoptosis and S-phase arrest in B16-F10 cells. In addition, 10c markedly increased the expression of acetylated-α-tubulin both in vitro and in vivo, without affecting the levels of acetylated-H3 (marker of HDAC1 inhibition). Furthermore, 10c (80 mg/kg) exhibited moderate antitumor efficacy in a melanoma tumour model with a tumour growth inhibition (TGI) of 32.9%, comparable to that (TGI = 31.3%) of tubastatin A. Importantly, the combination of 10c with NP19 (a small molecule PD-L1 inhibitor discovered by us before) decreased tumour burden substantially (TGI% = 60.1%) as compared to monotherapy groups. Moreover, the combination of 10c with NP19 enhanced the anti-tumour immune response, mediated by a decrease of PD-L1 expression levels and increased infiltration of anti-tumour CD8+ T cells in tumour tissues. Collectively, 10c represents a novel HDAC6 inhibitor deserving further investigation as a potential anti-cancer agent.


Histone acetyltransferases (HATs) and histone deacetylases (HDACs) are two modulators that regulate histone acetylationCitation1,Citation2, a crucial epigenetic process that changes chromatin architecture and regulates gene expressionCitation3–5. Particularly, HDACs play a key role in a variety of cellular processes such as transcription, cell cycle, and cellular metabolismCitation2. Overexpression of HDACs has been associated with many diseases such as cancerCitation4,Citation6, neurodegenerative Citation7 and immunological disordersCitation8,Citation9. Therefore, HDACs have been regarded as an attractive target for the treatment of these diseasesCitation3,Citation5. HDACs could be categorised into four classes (including class I, II, III, and IV), which are composed of a family of 18 enzymes (HDAC1–11, Sirt1–7).

Co-crystals of Zn2+ dependent HDACs with HDAC inhibitors (HDACIs) revealed the three common pharmacophore motifs of HDACIsCitation10: Zn-binding group (ZBG), which could bind Zn2+ of the HDAC active site; Linker part and the cap group (CAP), which can occupy the rim of the HDAC active pocket and further recognise the HDAC surface area (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Pharmacophore of HDAC inhibitors.

Based on the structural differences of the ZBG, HDACIs are generally divided into two classes: hydroxamic acids and benzamide analogues. To date, five HDACIs have been approved for the treatment of various cancers, and a number of molecules are being investigated in clinical trialsCitation4,Citation6, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Structures of representative HDAC inhibitors.

Among the different HDAC isoforms, HDAC6 has become an excellent target for anti-cancer therapeuticsCitation11,Citation12, due to its unique structure and ability to deacetylate numerous non-histone proteins, such as α-tubulin and HSP90, as well as a low likelihood to cause toxicity when inhibitedCitation13. Currently, several HDAC6 inhibitors (ACY-1215, ACY-241) have entered clinical trials for treating various types of cancersCitation14.

Cancer immunotherapy has revolutionised the treatment of cancer over the last decade. In particular, immune checkpoint inhibitors (e.g. PD-1/PD-L1 inhibitors) have enjoyed great success as cancer therapy. PD-1/PD-L1 inhibitors can block PD-1 binding to PD-L1, interfere the negative regulatory mechanism, and boost the activity of T cells, thus strengthening the immune responseCitation15,Citation16. Recent work has demonstrated that the immunomodulatory properties of HDAC6 inhibitors (HDAC6is) and their potential to be used as therapeutic agents for cancer immunotherapyCitation17. In melanoma tumour cells, the inhibition of HDAC6 led to a decreased level of the immunosuppressive molecule PD-L1 by affecting the recruitment and activation of STAT3Citation18. We and several other groups recently reported that the combination of selective HDAC6is and PD-L1 inhibitors could achieve significantly improved antitumor efficacy as compared to monotherapy, underscoring the immunomodulatory capability of selective HDAC6isCitation19,Citation20.

Recently, we discovered several HDAC6 inhibitorsCitation20 and dual HDAC3/tubulin inhibitorsCitation21 for cancer treatment. In continuation of our research interest in HDAC area and isoform-selective HDACIs, we designed a series of tubastatin A (a known HDAC6 inhibitor) analogues as potential anticancer agents based on the following rationales: (1) the surface area in the active site of HDAC6 to which the CAP moiety of HDACIs binds is wider and shallower than other HDAC isoforms, making it possible to design HDAC6-selective inhibitors; (2) the tricyclic moiety of tubastatin A can be further extended to increase the hydrophobic interactions (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Rationale for the design of target compounds.

Results and discussion


The target compounds (10ao) were efficiently generated via a multistep synthetic route as described in Scheme 1. First, a cross-coupling reaction between 2-aminoacetophenone (1) and phenyl hydrazine (2) afforded intermediate 3 under acidity-promoted conditions. Compound 3 underwent intramolecular cyclisation to form the indole analogue 4. Compound 4 was subjected to an intermolecular aldimine condensation reaction with substituted aldehydes 5ao to produce the key intermediates 6ao. Next, a nucleophilic substitution reaction between methyl 4-(bromomethyl)benzoate 7 and compound 6ao generated intermediates 8ao. Compound 8ao was hydrolysed to the corresponding acids 9ao, followed by a condensation reaction with hydroxylamine hydrochloride to give the final compounds 10ao.

Scheme 1. Synthesis of target compounds 10a10o.

Biological evaluations

HDAC-inhibitory activity of target compounds in Hela cell extracts

The HDAC-inhibitory activities of the newly synthesised compounds were evaluated against Hela cell nuclear extracts (containing different HDAC isozymes) with tubastatin A as a reference compoundCitation22. As shown in , most compounds were endowed with potent HDAC-inhibitory activities (>50%) at 1 μM. Compound 10a, with no substituents at position 5 of C-ring, displayed relatively poor HDAC inhibitory activity (44.70% at 1 μM). Therefore, the activity of compounds with bulky and rigid benzene-ring substituents at position 5 of C-ring was evaluated. It was observed that, compared to the compounds with ortho-substituent in the phenyl E-ring (10k, 39.80% at 1 μM), compounds with para or meta-substituents in the E-ring exhibited relatively higher HDAC inhibitory activity (10b–j, 59.36–83.06% at 1 μM). Particularly, compound 10c demonstrated comparable HDAC inhibitory activity to the reference compound tubastatin A at 1 μM (83.06% vs. 86.33%) and slightly lower HDAC inhibitory activity than MS-275 (93.51%) or PCI-34051 (97.02%). Further, compounds with heterocyclic substitutions at position 5 also showed modest to good HDAC inhibitory activity (61.21–79.18% at 1 μM). These results suggest that a quinoline-based CAP group is optimal for HDAC-inhibitory activity.

Table 1. The inhibitory activities of compounds against Hela nuclear extracts (at 1 μM).

Next, the IC50 values against HDAC enzymes were determined for compounds with an inhibition rate >50% at 1 μM. As shown in , most compounds displayed modest to excellent HDAC-inhibitory activity with IC50s ranging from 0.26 μM to 0.91 μM. Compound 10e displayed diminished activity (HDAC IC50 = 0.91 μM), suggesting that multi-substitution in the phenyl E-ring is not favoured. Compounds with electron-donating substituents in the phenyl E-ring (10fg) exhibited higher HDAC inhibitory activity than that with electron-withdrawing substituents (10hj). Among all the newly synthesised compounds, the halogen substituted compound 10c, bearing a fluorine substitution in the phenyl E-ring, showed comparable activity (IC50 = 261 nM) with tubastatin A (IC50 = 223 nM), and lower activity than MS-275 and PCI-34051 (IC50 = 180 nM and 21 nM, respectively). In addition, replacing the phenyl E-ring with heterocyclics such as pyridine (10l10n) and indole (10o) resulted in decreased activity (IC50 of 0.28–0.41 μM and 0.65 μM, respectively). We also tested the activity of intermediate 8c (Scheme 1), which did not show HDAC-inhibitory activity at 1 μM, indicating that the ZBG group is essential for activity.

Table 2. Overall inhibition of HDAC enzymes (IC50) in HeLa nuclear extracts by selected compounds with an inhibition rate of >50% at 1 μM.

HDAC isoform inhibition

In view of the potent inhibitory effects of the newly synthesised compounds against Hela cell nuclear extracts (a mixture of HDAC isozymes), we further assessed their inhibitory activity towards different HDAC isoforms (e.g. purified HDAC1, 3, 6, 7, 8 enzymes) at 1 μM by employing tubastatin A, ACY-1215, MS-275, and PCI-34051 as reference compounds. As depicted in Figure 4, HDAC6 was the most sensitive isoform to the exposure of compounds, especially to those (e.g. 10a10c10l, and 10n) with high inhibitory activities against the HDAC enzymes in HeLa nuclear extracts as discussed above. Next, we examined the IC50 values of the newly synthesised compounds against recombinant human HDACs 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, and 10. As shown in , most compounds displayed moderate to high selectivity for HDAC6. The pyridine-containing compounds (10l10n) exhibited good selectivity for HDAC6 (SI = 99, 42, and 90 for 10l10l, and 10n, respectively), while the indole-containing compound 10o lost the HDAC6 selectivity (SI = 9). Among all the compounds, 10c and 10l (IC50 = 0.27 μM and 0.30 μM) showed similar HDAC6 inhibitory potency to that of tubastatin A (IC50 = 0.076 μM). Compound 10c also demonstrated high selectivity for HDAC6 over HDAC1, HDAC3, HDAC7, and HDAC8 with SI of 56, 109, 98, and 34, respectively. As expected, the HDAC class I inhibitor MS-275 and selective HDAC8 inhibitor PCI-34051 were more potent against HDAC1/3 and HDAC8 isoforms, respectively, which is consistent with previous reportsCitation23,Citation24. Recent work has demonstrated that tubastatin A could simultaneously inhibit HDAC 6 and HDAC10 efficiently Citation25. Hence, we also assessed the HDAC10 inhibitory potency of the newly synthesised compounds. As shown in , compared to tubastatin A, those novel tubastatin A derivatives lost their ability to bind HDAC10, probably due to the absence of a basic amine in the cap group which is required for binding to HDAC10, and the results are consistent with previous studiesCitation25.

Figure 4. Inhibition profiles of compounds against HDAC isoforms 1, 3, 6, 7, and 8 at 1 μM.

Table 3. HDAC-inhibitory activity and isoform-selectivity of the newly synthesised compounds.

In vitro antiproliferative activity

A literature review demonstrates that the HDAC6 inhibition could trigger moderate cytotoxic effects against cancerous cellsCitation26–29. Thus, we assessed the in vitro antiproliferative potency of these compounds against several cancer cell lines, including HCT 116 (colorectal carcinoma), A549 (lung cancer), MCF-7 (breast cancer), Jurkat (T-lymphoma), and B16-F10 (melanoma) cells by the CCK-8 assay. It was observed that most compounds exhibited low antiproliferative effects against the four cancer cell lines, with Jurkat and B16-F10 cells being the most sensitive (). Among them, 10c possessed decent cytotoxic effects against the four cancer cell lines with IC50 of 7.36–21.84 μM (average IC50 = 12.07 μM), comparable to tubastatin A (average IC50 = 6.10 μM). These results are consistent with previous reportsCitation30–33. Finally, intermediate 8 displayed almost no cytotoxicity on all studied cell lines, indicating that the ZBG groups are essential for HDAC inhibitory activity.

Table 4. In vitro antiproliferative activity of the newly synthesised compound.

Annexin V-FITC apoptosis assay

It has been reported that the inhibition of HDAC6 could trigger apoptosis of cancer cells and cause cell cycle arrest in S-phaseCitation34–37. Therefore, we determined the percentage of apoptosis in B16-F10 melanoma cells treated with different concentrations of the most potent compounds (10c and 10l) by flow cytometry. As shown in Figure 5(A,B), compound 10c induced apoptosis of B16-F10 cells in a dose-dependent manner (24.96%, 41.36%, and 82.19% at concentrations of 2.5, 5.0, and 10.0 μM, respectively). Similar results were also observed for compound 10l (Figure 5(C,D)).

Figure 5. 10c and 10l induced apoptosis in cancer cells. (A) Apoptosis of B16-F10 cells induced by increasing concentrations of 10c (2.5, 5.0, and 10.0 μM). (B) Histograms showing the percentages of cell cycle distribution following 10c treatment (n = 3). (C) Apoptosis of B16-F10 cells induced by increasing concentrations of 10l (2.5, 5.0, and 10.0 μM). (D) Histograms showing the percentages of cell cycle distribution following 10l treatment (n = 3). The bar graphs are presented as mean ± SD. ***p < 0.001, **p < 0.01, *p < 0.05 compared with the corresponding control group, One-way ANOVA analysis.

Cell cycle arrest analysis

Next, the effects of 10c and 10l on cell cycle were evaluated in B16-F10 melanoma cells using flow cytometry. As shown in Figure 610c and 10l dose-dependently induced S-phase cell cycle arrest in B16-F10 melanoma cells. In addition, compound 10c caused S-phase cell cycle arrest to a greater extent than that of 10l (37% vs. 29%).

Figure 6. Induction of cell cycle arrest by 10c and 10l. (A) Cell cycle arrest induced by increasing concentrations of 10c (2.5, 5.0, and 10.0 μM). (B) Histograms showing the percentage of cell cycle distribution following 10c treatment (n = 3). (C) Cell cycle arrest induced by increasing concentrations of 10l (2.5, 5.0, and 10.0 μM). (D) Histograms showing the percentage of cell cycle distribution following 10l treatment (n = 3). The bar graphs are presented as mean ± SD. **p < 0.01, *p < 0.05 compared with the corresponding control group, one-way ANOVA analysis.

Effect on acetylation of α-tubulin and histone H3 in B16-F10 cells

To assess the cellular potency of 10c and 10l, we determined the levels of acetylated-α-tubulin (Ac-α-tub, a substrate of HDAC6) and acetylated-H3 (Ac-H3, marker of HDAC1 inhibition)Citation38 in B16-F10 cells treated with 10c10l, and tubastatin A (Figure 7). The expression levels of Ac-α-tub were increased by 10c or 10l in a concentration-dependent fashion, and the effects were similar to that of tubastatin A at 20.0 μM (Figure 7(A,B)). Importantly, 10c and 10l exhibited no/little effects on the levels of Ac-H3, when compared to the DMSO-treated group, indicating that 10c and 10l could selectively inhibit HDAC6 without affecting HDAC1.

Figure 7. Analysis of Ac-α-tub and acetylated-H3 by western blot. The levels of Ac-α-tub and α-tubulin in B16-F10 cells (A) treated with DMSO or 10c10l, and tubastatin A for 6 h; quantitative analysis of the level of acetyl-α-tubulin (Ac-α-Tub) by western blotting assay obtained in B16-F10 cells (B). All data are representative of three independent experiments and shown as mean ± SD. ***p < 0.001, **p < 0.01 compared with the control group. One-way ANOVA for above analysis, Dunnett test.

In vivo antitumor efficacy studies

Having identified the potent in vitro activity of compound 10c, we further evaluated its in vivo antitumor efficacy in a mouse melanoma (B16-F10) model, with tubastatin A as a reference compound. We recently reported that HDAC6 inhibitors could potentiate the antitumor immunity of PD-1/PD-L1 inhibitorsCitation20. Therefore, we also assessed the in vivo immunomodulatory effects of 10c as monotherapy or in combination with NP19, a small molecule PD-1/PD-L1 inhibitor discovered by us previouslyCitation39. The melanoma tumour-bearing C57BL/6 mice were intraperitoneally (i.p.) administered the following regimen for 14 days consecutively: vehicle control, 10c (80 mg/kg), tubastatin A (80 mg/kg), NP19 (PD-L1 inhibitor, 10 mg/kg), combination 1 (10c + NP19, 40 mg/kg + 5 mg/kg) and combination 2 (tubastatin A + NP19, 40 mg/kg + 5 mg/kg). The images of tumours, tumour growth curve and animal body weight curve are shown in Figure 8. Compared to the control group, the monotherapy with 10c (80 mg/kg) reduced tumour volume with a tumour growth inhibition (TGI) of 32.9%, which is comparable to that (TGI = 31.3%) of tubastatin A (80 mg/kg) and NP19 (10 mg/kg) (Figure 8(A,B)). Notably, the combination of NP19 and 10c decreased the tumour burden substantially (TGI% = 60.1%) as compared to control and monotherapy groups. While the group of combination 2 (tubastatin A + NP19) achieved a TGI of 54.7%, slightly lower than that of the combination 1 (NP19 + 10c) therapy. Overall, combination therapies were able to reduce the tumour volumes (Figure 8(B)) and tumour weights (Figure 8(C)) more dramatically than monotherapies (10c, tubastatin A or NP19). In addition, no significant weight loss was observed for all treatment groups (Figure 8(D)).

Figure 8. In vivo tumour-suppressing effects of 10c. Mice were treated with vehicle control, 10c (80 mg/kg), tubastatin A (80 mg/kg), NP19 (10 mg/kg), 10c + NP19 (40 mg/kg + 5 mg/kg per day) and tubastatin A + NP19 (40 mg/kg + 5 mg/kg per day) for 14 days consecutively, then sacrificed and tumours weights and volumes were measured. (A) The images of tumours; (B) weights of tumours. (C) changes of tumour volume during treatment; (D) changes of body weights of mice during treatment.

In vivo safety profiling

To further explore the in vivo safety profiles of 10c, we analysed the histological images of major organs (liver, kidney, and heart) collected in the end of the animal experiment. As shown in Figure 9(A), H&E-stained tissue sections exhibited no apparent pathological changes and noticeable major organ damage between groups treated with vehicle, 80 mg/kg tubastatin A, or 80 mg/kg 10c. Pan-HDACIs, such as SAHA and MS-275, are known to cause myelosuppressive toxicityCitation40,Citation41. Therefore, we investigated the potential myelosuppressive toxicity of 10c by auto haematology analysis. As shown in Figure 9(B,C), there was no obvious myelosuppression for 10c-treated group as the lymphocyte (WBC) and granulocyte (PLT) counts were not significantly changed compared to vehicle control group. In summary, the above results suggest that compound 10c possesses a benign safety profile in vivo.

Figure 9. In vivo safety profiles of 10c. (A) Pathological analysis of tissue sections from major organs (heart, liver, and kidney) of melanoma tumour-bearing mice. Haematoxylin and eosin (H&E) were used to stain the organs with representative images captured; (B) blood cell analysis: white blood cell count (n = 6); (C) blood cell analysis: platelet count (n = 6).

Effects on Ac-α-Tub expression levels in melanoma tumour tissues

To explore the target engagement capability of 10c under in vivo conditions, we performed western blot assays to determine the Ac-α-tub levels in melanoma tumour tissues after the in vivo antitumor efficacy study. As depicted in Figure 1010c dramatically increased the level of Ac-α-tub in melanoma tumour tissues, which was in line with its high in vitro HDAC6-inhibitory activity. As expected, the PD-L1 inhibitor NP19 showed no effects on the Ac-α-tub levels as monotherapy. In our previous studyCitation39, we evaluated the in vivo pharmacokinetic properties of NP19, which showed long half-life (t1/2 = 10.9 ± 7.7 h) and low oral bioavailability (F = 5%). In this study, NP19 had no effects on the Ac-α-tub levels, while 10c dramatically increased the level of Ac-α-tub in melanoma tumour tissues, which demonstrated the relative accuracy of this experiment in the absence of pharmacokinetics data of compound 10c.

Figure 10. Expression levels of Ac-α-tub protein in melanoma tumour tissues. Western blot analysis (A) and quantitative analysis (B) of Ac-α-Tub expression levels in melanoma tumour tissues collected from mice treated with vehicle control, 10c, NP19 + 10c, and NP19. n = 3, the bar graphs are presented as mean ± SD. One-way ANOVA for above analysis, Dunnett test.

PD-L1 expression in melanoma tumour tissues

To understand the immunomodulatory properties of 10c, particularly the potential mechanism of enhanced antitumor activity by the combination therapy (10c and NP19), western blot analysis was conducted to evaluate the PD-L1 level in melanoma tumour tissues. As depicted in Figure 11, the PD-L1 protein levels in melanoma tumour tissues were moderately decreased (∼30%) by NP19 (∼30%) and 10c (∼20%), as compared with the vehicle control group. Notably, the combination therapy (NP19 and 10c) caused a more significant reduction of PD-L1 (∼90%) protein than NP19 (∼30%) or 10c (∼20%) monotherapy. These above results suggest the combination of compound 10c and PD-L1 immunotherapy may achieve synergistic antitumor effects.

Figure 11. Expression levels of PD-L1 protein in melanoma tumour tissues. Western blot analysis (A) and quantitative analysis (B) of PD-L1 expression levels in melanoma tumour tissues collected from mice treated with vehicle control, 10c, NP19, and NP19 + 10cn = 3, the bar graphs are presented as mean ± SD. One-way ANOVA for above analysis, Dunnett test.

Analysis of tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes

To investigate the immunomodulatory effects of 10c, flow cytometry was used to analyse the tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) in melanoma tumour tissues. As described in Figure 12, the percentages of CD3+CD4+ cells (activated helper T cells) in the melanoma tumour tissues of three treatment group (NP19, 10c, NP19 + 10c) were 7.90%, 2.00%, and 12.7%, respectively, as compared to 2.69% for the vehicle control group. Additionally, the percentages of CD3+CD8+ cells (activated cytotoxic T cells) in the melanoma tumour tissues of three treatment groups (NP19, 10c, NP19 + 10c) were 8.46%, 2.29%, and 12.0%, respectively, as compared to 2.72% for the vehicle control group. Obviously, both the percentages of CD3+CD4+ cells (26.3%) and CD3+CD8+ cells (16.5%) were increased in the combination group (NP19 + 10c), which is in line with our previous studiesCitation20. Collectively, these results suggest that 10c can potentiate the antitumor immunity of PD-L1 inhibitor, thus leading to the high antitumor efficacy of the combination therapy.

Figure 12. Detection of infiltrating lymphocytes in melanoma tumour tissues by flow cytometry. (A) Representative images for CD3+CD4+ cells (helper T cells) and CD3+CD8+ cells (activated cytotoxic T cells) in tumour tissues of vehicle control, 10c, NP19, (NP19 + 10c) combination-treated mice; melanoma tumour CD3+CD4+ (B) and CD3+CD8+ (C) cells in vehicle control, 10c, NP19, (NP19 + 10c) combination-treated mice. ***p < 0.001, **p < 0.01 compared with vehicle group (n = 6, Dunnett’s multiple comparison test).

Molecular modelling of 10c and HDAC6

To gain deeper insights into the molecular basis of the inhibitory activity, we further analysed the binding modes of compound 10c with HDAC6 by using the crystal structure of HDAC6 complexed with trichostatin A (PDB: 5EDU)Citation10. Stable interactions between the ZBG groups of HDACIs and proteins are essential for the efficacy of HDACIs. As shown in Figure 13(A), the hydroxamic acid group (ZBG) of 10c penetrates into the bottom of the HDAC6 protein pocket, chelating the Zn2+ in a bidentate manner and forming a hydrogen bond with GLY-619. Further, the aryl linker of 10c is projected towards the hydrophobic channel, and three π–π interactions were observed between the aryl linker and PHE-620, PHE-680, HIS-651. Additionally, another π–π interaction was also formed between the bulky CAP moiety of 10c and PHE-679 of HDAC6.

Figure 13. Binding interactions between compounds 10c and HDAC6 (PDB: 5EDU); (A) binding interactions of 10c with HDAC6 protein; (B/C) 90° clockwise rotation of the HDAC6 protein (with 10c bound) along x-axis. Yellow dashes represent hydrogen bond and the green dashes represent π–π interactions.


In this work, a series of polycyclic aromatic compounds as novel HDAC6 inhibitors were discovered and evaluated for their pharmacological activities. Most of these compounds showed potent inhibitory activity against HDAC6 with IC50s at nanomolar levels. The representative compound 10c possessed potent high HDAC6 inhibitory activity (IC50 = 261 nM) and excellent HDAC6 selectivity (SI = 109), comparable to that of tubastatin A. In addition, 10c exhibited good antiproliferative activity against a panel of cancer cell lines with IC50 of 7.37–21.84 μM, better than tubastatin A (IC50 > 30 µM). Mechanistically, 10c displayed potent proapoptotic activity and dose-dependent induction of S-phase arrest in B16-F10 cells. Further, 10c could significantly increase the expression of Ac-α-tub both in vitro and in vivo, without affecting the levels of acetylated-H3 (marker of HDAC1 inhibition). Importantly, 10c (80 mg/kg) demonstrated moderate tumour suppressing effects in a mouse model of B16-F10 melanoma tumour with a TGI of 32.9%, comparable to that (TGI = 31.3%) of tubastatin A. Noticeably, the combination of 10c with NP19 (a small molecule PD-L1 inhibitor reported by us before) decreased the tumour burden substantially (TGI% = 60.1%) when compared to monotherapy groups. Moreover, 10c could efficiently enhance the anti-tumour immune response of NP19 by decreasing PD-L1 expression levels and activating the immune microenvironment in tumour tissues. Together, the above results indicate that 10c represents a novel HDAC6 inhibitor worthy of further investigation as a potential anti-cancer agent.


General methods

Reagents and solvents were commercially available and used without further purification unless specified. The reference compounds (tubastatin A, ACY-1215, MS-275, and PCI-34051) were provided by InvivoChem LLC (Libertyville, IL). All the reactions were monitored by thin-layer chromatography (TLC). Column chromatography was performed using silica gel (200–300 mesh). The 1H and 13C NMR spectra were acquired on a Bruker Avance spectrometer (Bruker AVANCE, Billerica, MA) at 400 MHz and 101 MHz, respectively. Chemical shifts with ppm (δ) are referenced to CDCl3 with 7.26 for 1H NMR and 77.10 for 13C NMR, and to d6-DMSO with 2.50 for 1H NMR and 39.5 for 13C NMR. Micromass Q-TOF mass spectrometer was used for high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS). Purity of the final compounds was ≥95%, as analysed by HPLC (SHIMADZU LC-20A, Kyoto, Japan, UV detection at 254 nm, C18, 5 µm, 4.6 × 150 mm). HPLC conditions: flow rate, 1 mL/min with a mobile phase of H2O/MeOH, 55/45 H2O/MeOH was initially held for 1 min followed by a linear gradient from 55/45 to 5/95 H2O/MeOH over 15 min, which was then held for 10 min.

General procedure for preparation of compounds 10a–o

Synthesis of intermediate 3

To a stirred solution of 1-(2-aminophenyl)ethanone (5.0 g) in EtOH (50 mL), phenyl hydrazine (5.5 g) and glacial acetic acid (5 mL) were added. The reaction mixture was stirred under reflux for 6 h and then allowed to room temperature, the solvent was concentrated under reduced pressure. The formed yellow solid was filtered, washed with ethanol, and dried over it; yielding corresponding phenylhydrazone (5.8 g, 70%), which was directly employed in the next step without further purification.

Synthesis of intermediate 4

To the (E)-2-(1-(2-phenylhydrazono)ethyl)aniline (1.50 g, 6.60 mmol), Eaton’s reagent (P2O5 and methane sulphonic acid) (10.0 mmol) were added under nitrogen atmosphere. The reaction mixture was stirred at 80 °C for 30 min and cooled to room temperature. After completion of the reaction, ice cold water and NaOH solution were added to set the pH = 7. The desired white solid compound was filtered and dried over washing with petroleum ether and purified by flash chromatography.

Synthesis of intermediate 6

To the mixture of 2-(1H-indol-2-yl)aniline (4) (0.50 g, 2.4 mmol) and aldehyde (5) (2.65 mmol) in EtOH (30 mL), TFA (7.90 mmol) was added at 0 °C under open air condition and the reaction mixture was stirred at room temperature for 8 h. After completion of the reaction, solvent was evaporated and the desired product was purified by column chromatography.

Synthesis of intermediate 8

To a solution of substituted 11H-indolo[3,2-c]quinoline in acetone (6) (0.01 mmol), Cs2CO3 (0.012) was added and stirred under N2 atmosphere for 30 min. Then, methyl 4-(bromomethyl)benzoate (7) (0.01 mmol) and KI (0.1 mmol) was added and the reaction mixture was stirred at room temperature for 2 h. After starting material was consumed, reaction mixture was filtered on celite bed and purified on silica gel column chromatography.

Synthesis of intermediate 9

To the MeOH solution (30 mL) of intermediate 8 (2.0 mmol, 1.0 equiv.), an aqueous solution of LiOH (5 mmol, 2.5 equiv., dissolve in 20 mL H2O) was added under 0 °C. The resulting mixture was stirred at r.t. for 2 h. The solvent was removed in vacuo and the residue was diluted by H2O, followed by the addition of 4 M hydrochloric acid solution to adjust to pH = 2. Finally, the mixture was subjected to filtration, and the filtrate was dried to obtain intermediate 9 (100.0%).

General procedures for the preparation of compounds 10a–o

To a mixture of acid (1.00 mmol), EDCI (1.50 mmol), hydroxy benzotriazole (HOBT) (1.50 mmol) in dry DMF (10 mL), NH2OH.HCl (1.10 mmol) and Et3N (2.00 mmol) were added at 0 °C. The reaction mixture was stirred at room temperature for 8 h. After completion of the reaction, it was neutralised with 1 N HCl and the compound with EtOAc was extracted. The organic layer was separated and washed with brine solution. The organic phase was dried over with NaSO4 and evaporated. Crude reaction mixture was purified by silica gel column chromatography. The desired pure compound (10ao) was formed in good yield (11.2–28.4%).


White solid, yield: 24.8%. 1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 11.12 (s, 1H), 9.73 (s, 1H), 9.04 (s, 1H), 8.46 (d, J = 7.6 Hz, 1H), 8.36 (t, J = 9.2 Hz, 1H), 8.18 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 7.85 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 2H), 7.70 (t, J = 7.2 Hz, 1H), 7.65 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 4H), 7.58–7.50 (m, 2H), 7.45 (t, J = 9.2 Hz, 1H), 7.19 (dd, J = 8.0 Hz, 2H), and 6.30 (s, 2H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 169.4, 150.1, 142.6, 141.8, 140.8, 136.3, 134.3, 130.0, 129.6, 128.7, 127.4, 125.9, 117.4, 116.5, 111.0, and 65.6. m.p.: 120.3–122.5 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C29H22N3O2: 444.1625, found: 444.1629. HPLC: tR 13.216 min, purity 97.95%.


White solid, yield: 19.6%. 1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 11.13 (s, 1H), 9.03 (s, 1H), 8.41 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 8.17 (d, J = 7.2 Hz, 1H), 7.88 (dd, J = 6.4, 2.0 Hz, 3H), 7.80 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 2H), 7.73 (t, J = 7.2 Hz, 1H), 7.69 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 2H), 7.56–7.51 (m, 2H), 7.49–7.46 (m, 1H), 7.25 (t, J = 7.6 Hz, 1H), 7.20 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 2H), and 6.33 (s, 2H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 155.6, 147.6, 143.0, 142.1, 141.2, 137.2, 133.3, 130.0, 129.9, 129.6, 129.5, 129.3, 128.7, 128.5, 127.4, 126.0, 123.7, 120.6, 117.5, 112.4, and 66.71. m.p.: 129.7–131.1 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C29H21BrN3O2: 522.0781, found: 522.0788. HPLC: tR 13.155 min, purity 96.19%.


White solid, yield: 21.1%. 1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 11.10 (s, 1H), 8.98 (s, 1H), 8.40 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 8.16 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 7.86 (t, J = 8.4 Hz, 3H), 7.72 (t, J = 7.2 Hz, 1H), 7.68 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 2H), 7.56–7.43 (m, 5H), 7.23 (t, J = 7.6 Hz, 1H), 7.19 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 2H), and 6.33 (s, 2H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 165.55, 163.95, 150.91, 142.77, 142.13, 139.15, 137.97, 132.78, 131.90, 128.44, 128.09, 126.32, 123.93, 122.88, 121.49, 121.40, 116.84, 116.62, 115.68, 113.71, 112.31, and 49.27. m.p.: 126.4–128.0 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C29H21FN3O2: 462.1529, found: 462.1532. HPLC: tR 14.607 min, purity 99.46%.


White solid, yield: 23.1%. 1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 11.13 (s, 1H), 9.01 (s, 1H), 8.40 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 8.17 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 7.86 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 3H), 7.72 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 3H), 7.68 (d, J = 7.6 Hz, 2H), 7.56–7.45 (m, 3H), 7.25 (t, J = 7.2 Hz, 1H), 7.19 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 2H), and 6.33 (s, 2H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 152.1, 142.3, 141.3, 141.0, 136.3, 134.3, 130.0, 129.6, 128.7, 127.6, 125.9, 119.4, 117.5, 117.0, and 66.5. m.p.: 133.1–134.8 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C29H21ClN3O2: 478.1269, found: 478.1265. HPLC: tR 13.456 min, purity 98.55%.


White solid, yield: 23.7%. 1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 11.13 (s, 1H), 9.00 (s, 1H), 8.39 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 8.16 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 7.84 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 7.71 (dd, J = 7.2, 2.4 Hz, 3H), 7.57–7.48 (m, 3H), 7.26 (t, J = 6.8 Hz, 1H), 7.21 (d, J = 7.6 Hz, 2H), 7.09 (s, 2H), 6.32 (s, 2H), and 3.83 (s, 9H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 167.2, 160.2, 153.9, 152.5, 143.1, 141.9, 140.0, 134.2, 131.8, 129.2, 128.1, 128.0, 127.5, 127.3, 127.2, 126.7, 126.5, 125.6, 116.2, 116.10, 115.7, 108.0, 63.9, 60.2, and 56.0. m.p.: 125.1–127.0 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C32H28N3O5: 534.2088, found: 534.2085. HPLC: tR 14.109 min, purity 98.81%.


White solid, yield: 20.5%. 1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 11.12 (s, 1H), 9.01 (s, 1H), 8.38 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 8.14 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 7.84 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 7.77 (d, J = 8.8 Hz, 2H), 7.71 (d, J = 7.6 Hz, 1H), 7.67 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 2H), 7.57 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 7.53–7.47 (m, 2H), 7.24–7.18 (m, 5H), 6.31 (s, 2H), 3.92 (s, 3H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 170.8, 160.3, 156.1, 146.9, 140.9, 140.8, 139.0, 138.1, 137.0, 132.7, 130.3, 129.5, 128.3, 127.0, 125.9, 125.5, 125.4, 122.1, 121.7, 121.3, 116.6, 113.9, 113.8, 109.4, 64.1, and 55.4. m.p.: 133.1–135.4 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C30H24N3O3: 474.1770, found: 474.1773. HPLC: tR 13.232 min, purity 98.19%.


White solid, yield: 16.3%. 1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 11.11 (s, 1H), 8.98 (s, 1H), 8.39 (d, J = 8.8 Hz, 1H), 8.14 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 7.83 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 7.72 (dt, J = 7.6, 8.4 Hz, 5H), 7.54–7.45 (m, 5H), 7.22 (dd, J = 8.0, 4.8 Hz, 3H), 6.31 (s, 2H), and 2.50 (s, 3H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 168.5, 156.4, 145.8, 140.9, 140.7, 140.5, 139.1, 137.1, 130.7, 129.3, 128.8, 128.4, 126.0, 125.7, 125.7, 122.0, 121.4, 116.6, 113.8, 109.4, 63.8, and 29.6. m.p.: 136.8–139.8 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C30H24N3O2: 458.1844, found: 458.1847. HPLC: tR 13.178 min, purity 99.41%.


White solid, yield: 17.4%. 1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 11.14 (s, 1H), 8.99 (s, 1H), 8.39 (t, J = 8.8 Hz, 1H), 8.17 (d, J = 6.0 Hz, 3H), 7.90 (d, J = 7.6 Hz, 3H), 7.73–7.68 (m, 2H), 7.54–7.50 (m, 3H), 7.42 (d, J = 7.2 Hz, 1H), 7.26–7.22 (m, 3H), and 6.36 (s, 2H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 167.9, 150.4, 143.5, 142.1, 138.8, 138.7, 133.1, 132.4, 132.2, 131.2, 130.6, 129.7, 128.9, 125.6, 124.6, 124.3, 122.5, 122.2, 121.7, 121.0, 117.8, 115.5, 113.4, 111.0, and 65.7. m.p.: 141.4–142.9 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C30H21N4O2: 469.1677, found: 469.1672. HPLC: tR 13.604 min, purity 98.03%.


White solid, yield: 11.2%. 1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 11.13 (s, 1H), 9.71 (s, 1H), 9.01 (s, 1H), 8.41 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 8.17 (t, J = 8.4 Hz, 2H), 7.96 (d, J = 7.2 Hz, 1H), 7.87 (dd, J = 8.0, 8.4 Hz, 2H), 7.75 (t, J = 7.6 Hz, 1H), 7.69 (d, J = 6.8 Hz, 2H), 7.57–7.41 (m, 3H), 7.23 (t, J = 8.0 Hz, 3H), and 6.33 (s, 2H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 168.2, 168.1, 167.8, 151.6, 151.0, 143.1, 142.6, 141.9, 141.7, 139.5, 139.2, 133.3, 132.5, 132.0, 131.7, 131.3, 131.0, 131.0, 130.8, 130.5, 129.5, 128.8, 128.6, 128.4, 128.2, 128.1, 125.6, 124.3, 124.0, 123.7, 122.5, 121.9, 121.7, 121.3, 121.2, 115.7, 115.5, 113.6, 113.4, 110.8, 110.6, and 65.5. m.p.: 122.4–124.0 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C30H21N4O2: 469.1670, found: 469.1671. HPLC: tR 14.244 min, purity 99.74%.


White solid, yield: 23.7%.1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 11.00 (s, 1H), 9.06 (s, 1H), 8.52 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 2H), 8.43 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 8.19 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 8.12 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 2H), 7.87 (t, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 7.75 (t, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 7.68 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 2H), 7.58 (t, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 7.52 (t, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 7.43 (t, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 7.24 (td, J = 8.4, 8.0 Hz, 3H), 6.34 (s, 2H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 167.9, 165.0, 149.8, 143.5, 142.1, 137.7, 136.7, 132.8, 132.4, 130.9, 129.2, 129.0, 128.9, 128.4, 127.1, 125.8, 125.6, 124.4, 123.0, 121.8, 121.7, 121.1, 115.3, 113.4, 111.2, and 66.9. m.p.: 126.8–128.1 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C29H21N4O4: 489.1558, found: 489.1556. HPLC: tR 14.889 min, purity 95.47%.


White solid, yield: 26.7%. 1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 11.02 (s, 1H), 9.13 (s, 1H), 8.45 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 8.21 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 7.89 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 7.79–7.74 (m, 2H), 7.69 (dd, J = 7.6, 5.8 Hz, 3H), 7.64 (dd, J = 17.2, 8.8 Hz, 2H), 7.58 (dd, J = 14.2, 6.4 Hz, 2H), 7.24 (td, J = 16.4, 8.0 Hz, 3H), and 6.34 (s, 2H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 167.8, 159.0, 143.6, 142.2, 141.8, 138.6, 137.1, 134.6, 134.5, 134.4, 132.7, 131.1, 131.1, 129.3, 126.4, 125.6, 125.0, 122.9, 122.3, 121.0, 120.9, 118.6, 115.6, 115.4, 115.0, 111.2, and 50.1. m.p.: 134.5–136.2 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C29H20ClFN3O2: 496.1102, found: 496.1109. HPLC: tR 13.159 min, purity 98.23%.


White solid, yield: 28.4%. 1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 11.12 (s, 1H), 8.99 (s, 1H), 8.87 (d, J = 4.0 Hz, 1H), 8.44 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 8.20 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 8.14 (td, J = 7.6, 1.6 Hz, 1H), 8.04 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 7.87 (dd, J = 17.2, 8.4 Hz, 1H), 7.75 (t, J = 7.2 Hz, 1H), 7.68 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 2H), 7.62 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 7.58 (t, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 7.50 (t, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 7.24–7.18 (m, 3H), and 6.34 (s, 2H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 164.0, 150.6, 149.5, 148.6, 143.6, 142.4, 139.0, 138.8, 136.9, 132.7, 132.5, 129.1, 128.9, 128.2, 127.3, 126.9, 126.4, 124.2, 124.1, 122.2, 121.1, 115.8, 113.5, 112.4, and 49.4. m.p.:130.4–131.9 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C28H21N4O2: 454.1569, found: 454.1563. HPLC: tR 13.824 min, purity 99.04%.


White solid, yield: 18.7%. 1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 11.17 (s, 1H), 9.02 (s, 1H), 8.86 (d, J = 4.0 Hz, 1H), 8.41 (t, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 8.26 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 8.19 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 7.88 (t, J = 7.2 Hz, 2H), 7.74–7.69 (m, 2H), 7.54 (dt, J = 15.2, 7.6 Hz, 2H), 7.38 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 7.23 (dd, J = 18.8, 8.0 Hz, 3H), and 6.34 (s, 2H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 164.0, 162.9, 146.6, 145.7, 145.3, 144.6, 143.3, 142.4, 139.0, 137.1, 132.6, 129.9, 129.3, 129.1, 128.2, 127.6, 126.3, 124.5, 124.2, 122.0, 121.6, 121.0, 115.8, 114.3, 112.6, and 49.3. m.p.: 125.4–127.3 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C28H21N4O2: 454.1569, found: 454.1565. HPLC: tR 14.202 min, purity 97.36%.


White solid, yield: 22.8%. 1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 12.92 (s, 1H), 8.89 (d, J = 4.4 Hz, 2H), 8.41 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 8.20 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 7.87 (dd, J = 22.8, 6.4 Hz, 5H), 7.76 (t, J = 7.6 Hz, 1H), 7.59–7.51 (m, 2H), 7.43 (d, J = 7.6 Hz, 1H), 7.25 (d, J = 7.6 Hz, 3H), and 6.37 (s, 2H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 166.6, 162.6, 150.3, 148.7, 146.4, 141.3, 140.9, 130.9, 130.7, 129.9, 128.5, 126.4, 125.9, 123.9, 121.9, 121.7, 121.5, 121.4, 116.9, 109.6, and 52.3. m.p.: 124.4–125.8 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C28H21N4O2: 454.1569, found: 454.1567. HPLC: tR 14.774 min, purity 96.00%.


White solid, yield: 23.9%. 1H NMR (400 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 11.15 (s, 1H), 9.05 (s, 1H), 8.38 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 8.12 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 8.00 (s, 1H), 7.82 (d, J = 8.4 Hz, 1H), 7.70–7.63 (m, 5H), 7.57 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 7.47 (dd, J = 15.6, 8.0 Hz, 2H), 7.28 (t, J = 7.6 Hz, 1H), 7.20 (d, J = 8.0 Hz, 1H), 7.15–7.06 (m, 2H), 6.32 (s, 2H), and 4.02 (s, 3H). 13C NMR (101 MHz, d6-DMSO) δ 167.9, 146.2, 143.0, 141.8, 139.1, 137.2, 136.9, 133.1, 131.8, 131.0, 130.9, 128.2, 127.8, 125.6, 125.1, 123.7, 123.6, 123.4, 122.7, 121.5, 121.3, 120.6, 114.8, 113.6, 110.9, 110.4, 105.5, 49.8, and 33.5. m.p.: 132.4–134.2 °C. HRMS (ESI-Q-TOF) m/z: [M + H]+ calculated for C32H25N4O2: 497.1933, found: 497.1935. HPLC: tR 15.442 min, purity 99.12%.

HeLa nuclear extract HDAC activity assay

The HeLa nuclear extract HDAC activity of the test compounds was evaluated using the HDAC Fluorescent Activity Assay Kit (BioVision K340, Milpitas, CA). The experiments were carried out according to the manufacturer’s protocol.

In vitro HDAC (1, 3, 6, 7, 8) inhibition assay

The HDAC (1, 6, 7) enzymes were obtained from Abcam (ab101661 for HDAC1, ab42632 for HDAC6, and ab101660 for HDAC7). The HDAC3 enzyme (BML-SE515-0050) and HDAC8 enzyme (H90-30H-05) were bought from ENZO Inc. (New York, NY) and SignalChem (Richmond, Canada), respectively. First, the reaction mixture consisted of 25 mM Tris, 1 mM MgCl2, 2.7 mM KCl, 137 mM NaCl, 0.1 mg/mL BSA, and HDAC enzymes (7.2 ng/well, 3.4 ng/well, 15.0 ng/well, and 22.0 ng/well of HDAC1, HDAC3, HDAC6, and HDAC8). The test compounds were diluted by DMSO. Second, the diluent and HDAC enzymes were added to the plate and incubated for 15 min. Then, the substrates of HDAC enzymes (Ac-Leu-Gly-Lys (Ac)-AMC for HDAC1/3/6; Ac-Leu-Gly-Lys (Tfa)-AMC for HDAC8) were added and incubated for half hour in room temperature. Finally, HDAC assay developer was used to quench the reaction for half hour. The fluorescence of the reaction was analysed using a TECAN microtitre plate reader (λEx: 350–360 nm, λEm: 450–460 nm).

In vitro antiproliferative activity by CCK-8 assay

The CCK-8 assay was used to determine the cytotoxicity of compounds. Cancer cells (5.0 × 103 cells in each well) were incubated at 37 °C with 5% CO2 overnight for 24 h. Then, DMSO containing different concentrations of compounds was added to the dosing wells with DMSO as the control and tubastatin A as the positive reference, followed by incubation for 48 h. The optical density at 450 nm was detected with a microplate reader. The IC50 values were calculated based on the dose-dependent curves.

Analysis of cancer cell apoptosis

The B16-F10 cells (2.0 × 105) were treated with different concentrations of 10c or 10l (2.5, 5.0, and 10.0 μM) for 24 h, and followed by incubation at 37 °C for overnight. Then, cells were collected, washed with cold PBS and resuspended in 1× Annexin-binding buffer. Cells were diluted in 1× Annexin-binding buffer to about 1 × 106 cells/mL, followed by the addition of annexin V and PI. Apoptotic cells were analysed by a flow cytometer (BD FACSCanto II, San Jose, CA).

Cell cycle analysis

The cell cycle assay was performed using flow cytometry. B16-F10 cells were seeded in six-well plate, and incubated at 37 °C for overnight. Then, cancer cells were treated with various concentrations of 10c or 10l, and incubated for another 48 h. Cell were collected, washed with cold PBS, and stained with 0.5 mL PI staining buffer for half hour. Cell cycle distribution was analysed by FACScan Flow cytometer and Cell Quest software.

Western blot analysis

The B16-F10 cells (5 × 105 cells/well) were treated with different concentrations of compounds 10c10l, or DMSO for a specified period of time. Cold PBS was used to wash the cells. Then, cells were lysed on ice for half hour and subjected to centrifugation. After collecting the supernatant of the centrifuge, protein concentrations were determined using the bicinchoninic acid assay. Subsequently, equal amounts of protein were resolved by SDS-PAGE, transferred to nitrocellulose membranes. After incubation with primary antibody at 4 °C for 12 h, the membranes were washed with TBST and cultured with the secondary antibody for 2 h. The relative intensity of protein expression was calculated by Image J software (Bethesda, MD). The antibodies α-tubulin (ab9051), acetylated α-tubulin (ab1791), acetylated histone 3 (ab177177), histone 3 (9715S), and GAPDH (sc-47724) were purchased from Abcam (Cambridge, UK).

In vivo antitumor efficacy study and safety profiling

The in vivo antitumor efficacy of 10c was assessed following the protocol approved by National Institutional Animal Care and Ethical Committee at Southern Medical University. The 6–8 weeks old male C57 mice were subcutaneously injected with B16-F10 cells (4 × 106/mL). When the tumour sizes reached 200–400 mm3, the mice were divided into five treatment groups (six mice in each group). 10c and tubastatin A were dissolved in PBS:PEG300 (1:1). During the experiment, the tumour size and body weight were measured every day. Tumour growth inhibition was calculated by dividing the tumour volumes from treatment groups by those of the control groups as 100%. The harvested organs (liver, heart, and kidney) were processed into paraffin routinely, stained with haematoxylin and eosin (H&E) and further evaluated for the in vivo safety profiles of the test compounds.

Molecular docking

The molecular docking study was performed using Glide 7.4 software (Schrodinger 11.1, New York, NY). The crystal structure of HDAC6 (PDB: 5EDU) was obtained from Protein Data Bank and Ligprep module was utilised to prepare 10c. Macromodel module (OPLS-2005 force field) was used for conducting the restrict molecular dynamics and to release any strains for the best docking complexes. The ligands and their surrounding residues within 20 Å were allowed to move freely, while the outer atoms are frozen.

Data analysis and statistics

All experiments were done three times independently and analysed using Prism Software 5.0. Statistical significance was calculated by one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) (p < 0.05). Unless otherwise noted, data are provided as mean ± SD.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Additional information


This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (82260676); the Science and Technology Projects of Ganzhou (2021-45-4), the Start-Up Foundation of Gannan Medical University (No. QD202144-2067) to PX; the National Natural Science Foundation of China (82003801) to LS; the National Natural Science Foundation of China (82173668), Thousand Youth Talents Program (C1080092) from the Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee and International Science and Technology Cooperation Projects of Guangdong Province (G819310411) to CJ; and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (82003598) to LY.


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