Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) plays an important role in the inactivation of biologically active and toxic catechols. It has been shown that COMT is genetically polymorphic with a wild-type and variant form where a valine has been substituted with a methionine. Several, but not all, epidemiological studies have shown that women, homozygous with the variant form, have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Previously, we showed that 4-hydroxyequilenin (4-OHEN), a cytotoxic/genotoxic equine catechol estrogen metabolite, is both a substrate of COMT and an irreversible inhibitor of the methylation activity of COMT in vitro. To further understand the mechanism(s) of the association between the breast cancer risk and the COMT polymorphism, it was of interest to study the effect of the Val/Met polymorphism on COMT-catalyzed catechol estrogen methylation and 4-OHEN-mediated inhibition. In the present study, Michaelis-Menten analysis showed no difference between the relative ability of each form to methylate 4-OHEN. However, we found that the COMT variant form was more susceptible to 4-OHEN-mediated irreversible inactivation. Electrospray ionization mass spectrometry and SDS-gel analysis of COMT modified by 4-OHEN revealed that inhibition mechanisms include alkylation and/or oxidation of certain amino acids. In addition, site-directed mutagenesis experiments showed that Cys33 played a more important role in the variant form of COMT demonstrated by the fact that the C33A mutant of the variant form of COMT decreased its catalytic capability more dramatically as compared with that of wild type. Furthermore, thermotropic studies indicated that the variant form was more thermolabile, which suggested that the valine to methionine substitution may have changed the secondary/tertiary structure of the variant form of COMT, making it more susceptible to 4-OHEN and heat inactivation. These data suggest that 4-OHEN-mediated inhibition of the variant form of COMT in vivo might affect the detoxification efficiency of endogenous and/or exogenous catechol estrogens and play a role in the association between breast cancer risk and COMT polymorphism.
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