The cytokine macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF) has emerged to be an important regulator of the inflammatory response and is critically involved in the development of septic shock, arthritis, and glomerulonephritis. Although the biological activities of MIF are presumed to require a receptor-based mechanism of action, the protein is also a tautomerase and has a catalytically active N-terminal proline that is invariant in structurally homologous bacterial isomerases. This observation raises the possibility that MIF may exert its biological action via an enzymatic reaction. Physiologically relevant substrates for MIF have not been identified, nor have site-directed mutagenesis studies consistently supported the requirement for a functional catalytic site. Small molecule inhibitors of MIF's isomerase activity also have been developed, but none have been shown yet to inhibit MIF biological activity. We report herein that the iminoquinone metabolite of acetaminophen, N-acetyl-p-benzoquinone imine (NAPQI), inhibits both the isomerase and the biological activities of MIF. The reaction between NAPQI and MIF is covalent and produces a NAPQI-modified MIF species with diminished cell binding activity and decreased recognition by anti-MIF mAb. These data are consistent with a model by which the NAPQI reacts with the catalytic Pro-1 of MIF to disrupt the integrity of epitope(s) critical to MIF's biological activity and point to the importance of the catalytic domain, but not the catalytic activity per se, in MIF function. These results also point to a powerful approach for the design of small molecule inhibitors of MIF based on interaction with its catalytic site and constitute an example of a pharmacophore capable of irreversibly inhibiting the action of a proinflammatory cytokine
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