The Mce3R stress-resistance pathway is vulnerable to small-molecule targeting that improves tuberculosis drug activities

One-third of the world’s population carries Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), the infectious agent that causes tuberculosis (TB), and every 17 seconds someone dies of TB. After infection, Mtbcan live dormant within macrophages for decades in a granuloma structure arising from the host immune response; and cholesterol is important for this persistence of Mtb. Current treatments require long-duration drug regimens with many associated toxicities, which are compounded by the high doses required. We phenotypically screened 35 6-azasteroid analogues against Mtband found that at low micromolar concentrations, a subset of the analogues sensitized Mtbto multiple TB drugs. Two analogues were selected for further study to characterize the bactericidal activity of bedaquiline and isoniazid under normoxic and low-oxygen conditions. These two 6-azasteroids showed strong synergy with bedaquiline(fractional inhibitory concentration index = 0.21, bedaquiline minimal inhibitory concentration = 16 nM at 1 μM 6-azasteroid). The rate at which spontaneous resistance to one of the 6-azasteroids arose in the presence of bedaquiline was approximately 10−9, and the 6-azasteroid-resistant mutants retained their isoniazid and bedaquiline sensitivity. Genes in the cholesterol-regulated Mce3R regulon were required for 6-azasteroid activity, whereas genes in the cholesterol catabolism pathway were not. Expression of a subset of Mce3R genes was down-regulated upon 6-azasteroid treatment. The Mce3R regulon is implicated in stress resistance and is absent in saprophytic mycobacteria. This regulon encodes a cholesterol-regulated stress-resistance pathway that we conclude is important for pathogenesis and contributes to drug tolerance, and that this pathway is vulnerable to small-molecule targeting in live mycobacteria.