Previously, we developed a strategy to develop a novel class of histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors by tethering short-chain fatty acids with Zn(2+)-chelating motifs, which led to N-hydroxy-4-(4-phenylbutyryl-amino)benzamide (HTPB), a hydroxamate-tethered phenylbutyrate derivative with sub-micromolar potency in inhibiting HDAC activity and cancer cell proliferation. In this study, we carried out structure-based optimization of HTPB by using the framework generated by the structure of histone deacetylase-like protein (HDLP)-trichostatin A (TSA) complexes. Docking of HTPB into the HDLP binding domain suggested that the hydrophobic microenvironment encompassed by Phe-198 and Phe-200 could be exploited for structural optimization. This premise was corroborated by the greater potency of (S)-(+)-N-hydroxy-4-(3-methyl-2-phenylbutyrylamino)-benzamide [(S)-11] (IC(50) in HDAC inhibition, 16 nM), of which the isopropyl moiety was favorable in interacting with this hydrophobic motif. (S)-11 at concentrations as low as 0.1 microM was effective in causing histone hyperacetylation and p21(WAF/CIP1) overexpression and suppressing proliferation in cancer cells.