Unchecked epithelial cell death is fundamental to the pathogenesis of pneumonia. The recognition of unique signaling pathways that preserve epithelial cell viability may present new opportunities for interventional strategies. We describe that mortality factor 4 like 1 (Morf4l1), a protein involved in chromatin remodeling, is constitutively expressed at low levels in the lung because of its continuous degradation mediated by an orphan ubiquitin E3 ligase subunit, Fbxl18. Expression of Morf4l1 increases in humans with pneumonia and is up-regulated in lung epithelia after exposure to Pseudomonas aeruginosa or lipopolysaccharide. In a mouse model of pneumonia induced by P. aeruginosa, Morf4l1 is stabilized by acetylation that protects it from Fbxl18-mediated degradation. After P. aeruginosa infection of mice, overexpression of Morf4l1 resulted in lung epithelial cell death, whereas its depletion restored cell viability. Using in silico modeling and drug-target interaction studies, we identified that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved thrombin inhibitor argatroban is a Morf4l1 antagonist. Argatroban inhibited Morf4l1-dependent histone acetylation, reduced its cytotoxicity, and improved survival of mice with experimental lung injury at doses that had no anticoagulant activity. These studies uncover a previously unrecognized biological mechanism whereby pathogens subvert cell viability by extending the life span of a cytotoxic host protein. Morf4l1 may be a potential molecular target for non-antibiotic pharmacotherapy during severe pulmonary infection.
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