Discovery of a druggable copper-signaling pathway that drives cell plasticity and inflammation
Inflammation is a complex physiological process triggered in response to harmful stimuli. It involves specialized cells of the immune system able to clear sources of cell injury and damaged tissues to promote repair. Excessive inflammation can occur as a result of infections and is a hallmark of several diseases. The molecular basis underlying inflammatory responses are not fully understood. Here, we show that the cell surface marker CD44, which characterizes activated immune cells, acts as a metal transporter that promotes copper uptake. We identified a chemically reactive pool of copper(II) in mitochondria of inflammatory macrophages that catalyzes NAD(H) redox cycling by activating hydrogen peroxide. Maintenance of NAD+ enables metabolic and epigenetic programming towards the inflammatory state. Targeting mitochondrial copper(II) with a rationally-designed dimer of metformin triggers distinct metabolic and epigenetic states that oppose macrophage activation. This drug reduces inflammation in mouse models of bacterial and viral (SARS-CoV-2) infections, improves well-being and increases survival. Identifying mechanisms that regulate the plasticity of immune cells provides the means to develop next-generation medicine. Our work illuminates the central role of copper as a regulator of cell plasticity and unveils a new therapeutic strategy based on metabolic reprogramming and the control of epigenetic cell states.