Differential efficacy of two small molecule PHLPP inhibitors to promote nucleus Pulposus cell health

Changli Zhang, Madeleine D. Gordon, Katherine M. Joseph, Martha E. Diaz-Hernandez, Hicham Drissi, Svenja Illien-Jünger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Intervertebral disc (IVD) degeneration is associated with chronic back pain. We previously demonstrated that the phosphatase pleckstrin homology domain and leucine-rich repeat protein phosphatase (PHLPP) 1 was positively correlated with IVD degeneration and its deficiency decelerated IVD degeneration in both mouse IVDs and human nucleus pulposus (NP) cells. Small molecule PHLPP inhibitors may offer a translatable method to alleviate IVD degeneration. In this study, we tested the effectiveness of the two PHLPP inhibitors NSC117079 and NSC45586 in promoting a healthy NP phenotype. Methods: Tail IVDs of 5-month-old wildtype mice were collected and treated with NSC117079 or NSC45586 under low serum conditions ex vivo. Hematoxylin & eosin staining was performed to examine IVD structure and NP cell morphology. The expression of KRT19 was analyzed through immunohistochemistry. Cell apoptosis was assessed by TUNEL assay. Human NP cells were obtained from patients with IVD degeneration. The gene expression of KRT19, ACAN, SOX9, and MMP13 was analyzed via real time qPCR, and AKT phosphorylation and the protein expression of FOXO1 was analyzed via immunoblot. Results: In a mouse IVD organ culture model, NSC45586, but not NSC117079, preserved vacuolated notochordal cell morphology and KRT19 expression while suppressing cell apoptosis, counteracting the degenerative changes induced by serum deprivation, especially in males. Likewise, in degenerated human NP cells, NSC45586 increased cell viability and the expression of KRT19, ACAN, and SOX9 and reducing the expression of MMP13, while NSC117079 treatment only increased KRT19 expression. Mechanistically, NSC45586 treatment increased FOXO1 protein expression in NP cells, and inhibiting FOXO1 offset NSC45586-induced regenerative potential, especially in males. Conclusions: Our study indicates that NSC45586 was effective in promoting NP cell health, especially in males, suggesting that PHLPP plays a key role in NP cell homeostasis and that NSC45586 might be a potential drug candidate in treating IVD degeneration.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1306
JournalJOR Spine
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2024
Externally publishedYes


  • FOXO1
  • NSC117079
  • NSC45586
  • intervertebral disc degeneration
  • nucleus pulposus
  • small molecule PHLPP inhibitor


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