Inhibition of the HEG1-KRIT1 interaction increases KLF4 and KLF2 expression in endothelial cells

FASEB Bioadv. 2021 Feb 18;3(5):334-355. doi: 10.1096/fba.2020-00141. eCollection 2021 May.


The transmembrane protein heart of glass1 (HEG1) directly binds to and recruits Krev interaction trapped protein 1 (KRIT1) to endothelial junctions to form the HEG1-KRIT1 protein complex that establishes and maintains junctional integrity. Genetic inactivation or knockdown of endothelial HEG1 or KRIT1 leads to the upregulation of transcription factors Krüppel-like factors 4 and 2 (KLF4 and KLF2), which are implicated in endothelial vascular homeostasis; however, the effect of acute inhibition of the HEG1-KRIT1 interaction remains incompletely understood. Here, we report a high-throughput screening assay and molecular design of a small-molecule HEG1-KRIT1 inhibitor to uncover acute changes in signaling pathways downstream of the HEG1-KRIT1 protein complex disruption. The small-molecule HEG1-KRIT1 inhibitor 2 (HKi2) was demonstrated to be a bona fide inhibitor of the interaction between HEG1 and KRIT1 proteins, by competing orthosterically with HEG1 through covalent reversible interactions with the FERM (4.1, ezrin, radixin, and moesin) domain of KRIT1. The crystal structure of HKi2 bound to KRIT1 FERM revealed that it occupies the same binding pocket on KRIT1 as the HEG1 cytoplasmic tail. In human endothelial cells (ECs), acute inhibition of the HEG1-KRIT1 interaction by HKi2 increased KLF4 and KLF2 mRNA and protein levels, whereas a structurally similar inactive compound failed to do so. In zebrafish, HKi2 induced expression of klf2a in arterial and venous endothelium. Furthermore, genome-wide RNA transcriptome analysis of HKi2-treated ECs under static conditions revealed that, in addition to elevating KLF4 and KLF2 expression, inhibition of the HEG1-KRIT1 interaction mimics many of the transcriptional effects of laminar blood flow. Furthermore, HKi2-treated ECs also triggered Akt signaling in a phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K)-dependent manner, as blocking PI3K activity blunted the Akt phosphorylation induced by HKi2. Finally, using an in vitro colocalization assay, we show that HKi6, an improved derivative of HKi2 with higher affinity for KRIT1, significantly impedes recruitment of KRIT1 to mitochondria-localized HEG1 in CHO cells, indicating a direct inhibition of the HEG1-KRIT1 interaction. Thus, our results demonstrate that early events of the acute inhibition of HEG1-KRIT1 interaction with HKi small-molecule inhibitors lead to: (i) elevated KLF4 and KLF2 gene expression; and (ii) increased Akt phosphorylation. Thus, HKi's provide new pharmacologic tools to study acute inhibition of the HEG1-KRIT1 protein complex and may provide insights to dissect early signaling events that regulate vascular homeostasis.

Keywords: HEG1; KLF2; KLF4; KRIT1; endothelial cells.