A series of eight bis(thiosemicarbazone) ligands and 16 of their respective copper(II) and zinc(II) complexes containing a combination of hydrogen, methyl, pyridyl, phenyl, and/or ethyl substituents at the diimine position of the ligand backbone were synthesized and characterized. The objective of this study was to identify the structure-activity relationships within a series of analogues with different substituents at the diimine position of the backbone and at the terminal N atom. The Cu(II) complexes Cu(GTSM2), Cu(GTSCM), Cu(PyTSM2), Cu(EMTSM2) and Cu(PGTSM2) demonstrated a distorted square planar geometry, while the Zn(II) complexes Zn(ATSM2)(DMSO), Zn(PyTSM2)(DMSO), and Zn(PGTSM2)(H2O) formed a distorted square pyramidal geometry. Cyclic voltammetry showed that the Cu(II) complexes display quasi-reversible electrochemistry. Of the agents, Cu(II) glyoxal bis(4,4-dimethyl-3-thiosemicarbazone) [Cu(GTSM2)] and Cu(II) diacetyl bis(4,4-dimethyl-3-thiosemicarbazone) [Cu(ATSM2)] demonstrated the greatest antiproliferative activity against tumor cells. Substitutions at the diimine position and at the terminal N atom with hydrophobic moieties markedly decreased their antiproliferative activity. Complexation of the bis(thiosemicarbazones) with Zn(II) generally decreased their antiproliferative activity, suggesting the Zn(II) complex did not act as a chaperone to deliver the ligand intracellularly, in contrast to similar bis(thiosemicarbazone) cobalt(III) complexes [King et al. Inorg. Chem.2017, 56, 6609-6623]. However, five of the eight bis(thiosemicarbazone) Cu(II) complexes maintained or increased their antiproliferative activity, relative to the ligand alone, and a mechanism of Cu-induced oxidative stress is suggested. Surprisingly, relative to normoxic growth conditions, hypoxia that is found in the tumor microenvironment decreased the antiproliferative efficacy of most bis(thiosemicarbazones) and their copper complexes. This was independent of the potential hypoxia-selectivity mediated by Cu(II/I) redox potentials. These results provide structure-activity relationships useful for the rational design of bis(thiosemicarbazone) anticancer agents.
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