Nelfinavir and Its Active Metabolite M8 Are Partial Agonists and Competitive Antagonists of the Human Pregnane X Receptor

Mol Pharmacol. 2021 Mar;99(3):184-196. doi: 10.1124/molpharm.120.000116. Epub 2021 Jan 22.


The HIV protease inhibitor nelfinavir is currently being analyzed for repurposing as an anticancer drug for many different cancers because it exerts manifold off-target protein interactions, finally resulting in cancer cell death. Xenosensing pregnane X receptor (PXR), which also participates in the control of cancer cell proliferation and apoptosis, was previously shown to be activated by nelfinavir; however, the exact molecular mechanism is still unknown. The present study addresses the effects of nelfinavir and its major and pharmacologically active metabolite nelfinavir hydroxy-tert-butylamide (M8) on PXR to elucidate the underlying molecular mechanism. Molecular docking suggested direct binding to the PXR ligand-binding domain, which was confirmed experimentally by limited proteolytic digestion and competitive ligand-binding assays. Concentration-response analyses using cellular transactivation assays identified nelfinavir and M8 as partial agonists with EC50 values of 0.9 and 7.3 µM and competitive antagonists of rifampin-dependent induction with IC50 values of 7.5 and 25.3 µM, respectively. Antagonism exclusively resulted from binding into the PXR ligand-binding pocket. Impaired coactivator recruitment by nelfinavir as compared with the full agonist rifampin proved to be the underlying mechanism of both effects on PXR. Physiologic relevance of nelfinavir-dependent modulation of PXR activity was investigated in respectively treated primary human hepatocytes, which showed differential induction of PXR target genes and antagonism of rifampin-induced ABCB1 and CYP3A4 gene expression. In conclusion, we elucidate here the molecular mechanism of nelfinavir interaction with PXR. It is hypothesized that modulation of PXR activity may impact the anticancer effects of nelfinavir. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Nelfinavir, which is being investigated for repurposing as an anticancer medication, is shown here to directly bind to human pregnane X receptor (PXR) and thereby act as a partial agonist and competitive antagonist. Its major metabolite nelfinavir hydroxy-tert-butylamide exerts the same effects, which are based on impaired coactivator recruitment. Nelfinavir anticancer activity may involve modulation of PXR, which itself is discussed as a therapeutic target in cancer therapy and for the reversal of chemoresistance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily B / genetics
  • Binding Sites
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP3A / genetics
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Gene Expression Regulation / drug effects
  • Hep G2 Cells
  • Hepatocytes / cytology
  • Hepatocytes / drug effects
  • Hepatocytes / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Models, Molecular
  • Molecular Conformation
  • Molecular Docking Simulation
  • Nelfinavir / analogs & derivatives*
  • Nelfinavir / chemistry
  • Nelfinavir / pharmacology*
  • Pregnane X Receptor / agonists
  • Pregnane X Receptor / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Pregnane X Receptor / chemistry
  • Pregnane X Receptor / metabolism*
  • Primary Cell Culture


  • ABCB1 protein, human
  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily B
  • NR1I2 protein, human
  • Pregnane X Receptor
  • hydroxy-t-butylamidenelfinavir
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP3A
  • CYP3A4 protein, human
  • Nelfinavir