Interference of boswellic acids with the ligand binding domain of the glucocorticoid receptor

J Chem Inf Model. 2014 Mar 24;54(3):978-86. doi: 10.1021/ci400666a. Epub 2014 Feb 20.


Boswellic acids (BAs) possess anti-inflammatory properties in various biological models with similar features to those of glucocorticoids (GCs), such as suppression of the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Hence, the molecular mechanism of BAs responsible for their anti-inflammatory features might be attributable to interference with the human glucocorticoid receptor (GR). Due to obvious structural similarities with GCs, we conducted pharmacophore studies as well as molecular docking simulations of BAs as putative ligands at the ligand binding site (LBS) of the GR in distinct functional states. In order to verify receptor binding and functional activation of the GR by BAs, radiometric binding assays as well as GR response element-dependent luciferase reporter assay were performed with dexamethasone (DEX) as a functional positive control. With respect to the observed position of GCs in GR crystal complexes in the active antagonist state, BAs docked in a flipped orientation with estimated binding constants reflecting nanomolar affinities. For validation, DEX and other steroids were successfully redocked into their crystal poses in similar ranges as reported in the literature. In line with the pharmacophore and docking models, the BAs were strong GR binders (radiometric binding assay), albeit none of the BAs activated the GR in the reporter gene assay, when compared to the GC agonist DEX. The flipped scaffolds of all BAs dislodge the known C-11 function from its receiving amino acid (Asn564), which may explain the silencing effects of receptor-bound BAs in the reporter gene assay. Together, our results constitute a compelling example of rigid keys acting in an adaptable lock qualifying as a reversed induced fit mechanism, thereby extending the hitherto published knowledge about molecular target interactions of BAs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents / chemistry*
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents / pharmacology*
  • Dexamethasone / pharmacology
  • Glucocorticoids / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Molecular Docking Simulation
  • Protein Binding
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / metabolism*
  • Structure-Activity Relationship
  • Triterpenes / chemistry*
  • Triterpenes / pharmacology*


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Ligands
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid
  • Triterpenes
  • boswellic acid
  • Dexamethasone