A common concern with using biophysical techniques to identify fragments is that the functional implications of identified binders are not always clear, an issue we’ve discussed previously. In a new paper in J. Am. Chem. Soc., Wolfgang Jahnke (co-editor of the first book on FBDD) and colleagues at Novartis describe a clever NMR approach to address this problem and identify both agonists and antagonists that bind to an allosteric site on the protein tyrosine kinase Abl.
Abl is less well known than its famous cousin, Bcr-Abl, an oncogenic fusion protein in which the kinase activity is always turned on. Bcr-Abl is targeted by imatinib and a number of other kinase inhibitors; indeed, the success of imatinib against certain types of cancer has been largely responsible for the rush to develop drugs targeting kinases.
Most kinase-targeted drugs (including imatinib) bind in or near the conserved ATP-binding site. However, Abl offers another binding site, a pocket that can be filled by the fatty-acid myristic acid. This interaction causes conformational changes in the protein, stabilizing an inactive state. Indeed, previous research had identified molecules that bind in this pocket and block activity. Jahnke and colleagues used NMR screening of a 500-fragment library to try to identify new chemical scaffolds.
Several fragments were identified, some of which bound relatively tightly as judged by NMR and ITC. However, these fragments did not inhibit kinase activity. Crystallographic analysis of the fragments bound to Abl revealed that, although the fragments do bind in the myristate pocket, their binding modes are incompatible with the conformational changes needed to inhibit the kinase. Realizing that a specific valine residue is structurally disordered in the absence of myristate, the researchers established an NMR assay using Abl in which valine had been isotopically labeled to assess which molecules bind in a similar fashion to myristate (and thus block activity).
But what of the molecules that bind in the myristate pocket without causing conformational changes? Some of these can actually activate the kinase by competing with endogenous myristoyl groups. Fragment-based discovery of agonists is not unprecedented (see for example here and here), but it is rare. Assays such as the one described here to distinguish between different conformations of a protein could be practical complements to approaches that focus on binding alone. The paper is also a useful reminder that binders are not necessarily inhibitors, and can in fact be just the opposite.