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Lipophilic methylene blue analogues enhance mitochondrial function and increase frataxin levels in a cellular model of Friedreich's ataxia

Friedreich's ataxia (FRDA) is an autosomal recessive neurodegenerative disorder resulting from reduced expression of the protein frataxin (FXN). Although its function is not fully understood, frataxin appears to help assemble iron sulfur clusters; these are critical for the function of many proteins, including those needed for mitochondrial energy production. Finding ways to increase FXN levels has been a major therapeutic strategy for this disease. Previously, we described a novel series of methylene violet analogues and their structural optimization as potential therapeutic agents for neurodegenerative and mitochondrial disorders. Presently, a series of methylene blue analogues has been synthesized and characterized for their in vitro biochemical and biological properties in cultured Friedreich's ataxia lymphocytes. Favorable methylene blue analogues were shown to increase frataxin levels and mitochondrial biogenesis, and to improve aconitase activity. The analogues were found to be good ROS scavengers, and able to protect cultured FRDA lymphocytes from oxidative stress resulting from inhibition of complex I and from glutathione depletion. The analogues also preserved mitochondrial membrane potential and augmented ATP production. Our results suggest that analogue 5, emerging from the initial structure of the parent compound methylene blue (MB), represents a promising lead structure and lacks the cytotoxicity associated with the parent compound MB.

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Jane Larkindale

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