The transcription factor (TF) SOX18 drives lymphatic vessel development in both embryogenesis and tumour-induced neo-lymphangiogenesis. Genetic disruption of Sox18 in a mouse model protects from tumour metastasis and established the SOX18 protein as a molecular target. Here, we report the crystal structure of the SOX18 DNA binding high-mobility group (HMG) box bound to a DNA element regulating Prox1 transcription. The crystals diffracted to 1.75Å presenting the highest resolution structure of a SOX/DNA complex presently available revealing water structure, structural adjustments at the DNA contact interface and non-canonical conformations of the DNA backbone. To explore alternatives to challenging small molecule approaches for targeting the DNA-binding activity of SOX18, we designed a set of five decoys based on modified Prox1-DNA. Four decoys potently inhibited DNA binding of SOX18 in vitro and did not interact with non-SOX TFs. Serum stability, nuclease resistance and thermal denaturation assays demonstrated that a decoy circularized with a hexaethylene glycol linker and terminal phosphorothioate modifications is most stable. This SOX decoy also interfered with the expression of a luciferase reporter under control of a SOX18-dependent VCAM1 promoter in COS7 cells. Collectively, we propose SOX decoys as potential strategy for inhibiting SOX18 activity to disrupt tumour-induced neo-lymphangiogenesis.
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