The antimicrobial drug pyrimethamine inhibits STAT3 transcriptional activity by targeting the enzyme dihydrofolate reductase

J Biol Chem. 2022 Feb;298(2):101531. doi: 10.1016/j.jbc.2021.101531. Epub 2021 Dec 23.


Cancer is often characterized by aberrant gene expression patterns caused by the inappropriate activation of transcription factors. Signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 (STAT3) is a key transcriptional regulator of many protumorigenic processes and is persistently activated in many types of human cancer. However, like many transcription factors, STAT3 has proven difficult to target clinically. To address this unmet clinical need, we previously developed a cell-based assay of STAT3 transcriptional activity and performed an unbiased and high-throughput screen of small molecules known to be biologically active in humans. We identified the antimicrobial drug pyrimethamine as a novel and specific inhibitor of STAT3 transcriptional activity. Here, we show that pyrimethamine does not significantly affect STAT3 phosphorylation, nuclear translocation, or DNA binding at concentrations sufficient to inhibit STAT3 transcriptional activity, suggesting a potentially novel mechanism of inhibition. To identify the direct molecular target of pyrimethamine and further elucidate the mechanism of action, we used a new quantitative proteome profiling approach called proteome integral solubility alteration coupled with a metabolomic analysis. We identified human dihydrofolate reductase as a target of pyrimethamine and demonstrated that the STAT3-inhibitory effects of pyrimethamine are the result of a deficiency in reduced folate downstream of dihydrofolate reductase inhibition, implicating folate metabolism in the regulation of STAT3 transcriptional activity. This study reveals a previously unknown regulatory node of the STAT3 pathway that may be important for the development of novel strategies to treat STAT3-driven cancers.

Keywords: STAT3; cancer therapy; dihydrofolate reductase; folate metabolism; inhibition mechanism; pyrimethamine; small molecule; transcription regulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Infective Agents* / chemistry
  • Anti-Infective Agents* / pharmacology
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Folic Acid / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Proteome / metabolism
  • Pyrimethamine*
  • STAT3 Transcription Factor* / antagonists & inhibitors
  • STAT3 Transcription Factor* / genetics
  • STAT3 Transcription Factor* / metabolism
  • Tetrahydrofolate Dehydrogenase* / genetics
  • Tetrahydrofolate Dehydrogenase* / metabolism


  • Anti-Infective Agents
  • Proteome
  • STAT3 Transcription Factor
  • STAT3 protein, human
  • Folic Acid
  • Tetrahydrofolate Dehydrogenase
  • Pyrimethamine