The protein p53 is inactivated in a large fraction of cancer cells and has long been of interest for oncology. Mutations of the gene frequently lead to a destabilized form of the protein. For example, substitution of cysteine for tyrosine at position 220 causes the mutant protein to rapidly denature at body temperature and also opens a reasonably large and hydrophobic crevice on the surface of the protein at lower temperatures. If molecules could be identified that bind in this crevice, the protein might be stabilized, restoring its function. In a recent paper* in Chemistry and Biology, Alan Fersht and colleagues at Cambridge University have targeted this crevice using fragment screening.
The researchers assembled a fragment library of 1895 molecules from three commercial vendors (ChemBridge, Life Chemicals, and Maybridge). They then used two orthogonal screening methods, NMR (WaterLOGSY) and thermal denaturation scanning fluorimetry, to identify fragment hits. These were then confirmed using two-dimensional HSQC NMR. WaterLOGSY identified 70 confirmed hits, while thermal screening identified only 17; oddly, only three of these were in common. The authors suggest that fluorescence quenching may lead to a higher false negative rate for the thermal denaturation method, but it is also possible that the NMR method is identifying fragments that bind so weakly as to show no effect on protein stability.
Of the 84 hits, three fragments could subsequently be characterized bound to p53 crystallographically. They all fit in the Y220C crevice, though each sits in a somewhat different location.
There is still a long way to go for these molecules: the most potent fragment has a Kd of 105 micromolar. Still, with a ligand efficiency of 0.33 kcal/mol per atom, this compares favorably to the best molecule the authors had previously identified from an in silico screen of 2.7 million molecules (Kd roughly 150 micromolar, ligand efficiency 0.29 kcal/mol per atom).
Although it is still not clear that stabilizing mutant p53 will be a viable approach for treating cancer, the identification of a number of diverse fragments suggests that the Y220C site may be druggable. Moreover, the fragments themselves are potential starting points for developing more potent molecules.
*Thanks to Mauro Angiolini for bringing this publication to our attention on LinkedIn.