Although most people try to advance fragments to more potent molecules, some have taken the reverse approach: starting with potent binders and deconstructing them into fragments (see for example here, here, and here). A recent, thorough example in J. Med. Chem. shows how isolated fragments do not necessarily bind in the same manner as they do in fully elaborated molecules.
In this paper, Isabelle Krimm and colleagues at the Université de Lyon in France applied “fragment-based deconstruction” to inhibitors of the anti-cancer target Bcl-xL. This protein is one of the great success stories in fragment-based drug discovery: ABT-263, which is in multiple clinical trials, was discovered by researchers at Abbott using SAR-by-NMR. In that work, fragments were identified binding near each other on the protein (site 1 and site 2) and subsequently linked together. Very extensive medicinal chemistry eventually led to the picomolar inhibitor now in clinical testing.
Krimm and colleagues dissected 9 inhibitors of Bcl-2, including ABT-263, into 22 different fragments and studied their binding by NMR. They first used ligand-observed NMR (WaterLOGSY and saturation transfer difference, or STD) and found that 19 fragments interacted with the protein. When they then turned to protein-observed NMR (proton-15N heteronuclear single quantum correlation, or HSQC), only 13 fragments caused changes to the spectra of Bcl-xL, suggesting that the other six bound too weakly to detect. In fact, the most potent fragment has an affinity of just 2.7 mM, so it is not surprising that some of the fragments were undetectable.
The nice thing about protein-observed NMR is that it can provide insight into where on the protein the fragments bind, and in this case the researchers found that 12 of the 13 fragments that caused NMR shifts in the protein bind to site 1, despite the fact that structures and modeling suggest that some of these fragments should be binding in other sub-sites. (The 13th fragment appears to bind to multiple sites on the protein surface.) In other words, the binding modes of the isolated fragments are not the same as the binding modes of the fragments when assembled.
The authors conclude that fragments “will interact with their preferred binding site, which can be different from the site they occupy when they are included in the larger molecule.”
Interestingly, one of the fragments studied by Krimm (2,3-dihydroxynapthalene) was also tested at Abbott, but found to bind in site 2. The reason? In the Abbott study, this fragment (and a number of others) were tested in the presence of a fragment that binds to site 1. It seems that site 1 is a thermodynamic sink, or hot spot. Unless this site is filled, other fragments will bind there, even if they could also bind elsewhere on the protein. The implication is that, if you want to find fragments that bind to a new site on your protein, it may be worth screening in the presence of a fragment known to bind to an existing site.