Phosphate groups are handy little things: easy for enzymes to put on and take off, they pack a lot of charge in a small volume, thereby providing plenty of binding energy for electrostatic interactions. Not surprisingly, they are ubiquitous in biology. Unfortunately, the same things that make them attractive for an organism make them problematic for drugs: they are easily removed, and their highly negative charge gives molecules containing phosphates a real problem getting across membranes. What’s a chemist to do?
This was the dilemma faced by Ruth Brenk, Ian Gilbert, and colleagues at the University of Dundee. They were interested in inhibiting the enzyme 6-phosphogluconate dehydrogenase (6PGDH) from the parasite that causes sleeping sickness. (See here for previous work from the same group using fragment methods to discover inhibitors against a different enzyme from the same organism.) The enzyme 6PGDH, as its name suggests, binds phosphate-containing substrates and has a very polar active site. Nanomolar inhibitors have been reported in the literature, but these contain phosphates and are not active in cell assays.
As reported in a recent issue of Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry, the researchers computationally filtered a set of commercially available compounds to find those that were less than 320 Da and were negatively charged, thereby potentially mimicking a phosphate. They then used DOCK 3.5.54 to see which of the resulting 64,000 molecules might bind in the active site of 6PGDH, resulting in 5836 possible hits. Subsequent triaging led to the purchase of 71 compounds. These were tested for inhibition of the enzyme at 200 micromolar concentration. Ten of these compounds inhibited the enzyme more than 80% at this concentration, of which 3 gave clean IC50 curves. These three molecules are all 5-membered carboxylic-acid-containing heterocycles, and although the IC50s are modest (ranging from 28 to 45 micromolar), they have good ligand efficiencies (up to 0.66 (kcal/mol)/atom). A computational search for analogs resulted in a few more active molecules with similar properties.
Whether these fragments can be advanced remains to be seen. The calculated solubilites, Log P, total polar surface area, and intestinal absorption parameters are more attractive than previous inhibitors, but the history of phosphate mimics is not encouraging. Most prominently, the protein PTP-1B, which recognizes phosphotyrosine residues, was once one of the hottest drug targets around, spawning a cottage industry of groups developing phosphotyrosine mimetics. Fragment methods were particularly effective, and numerous potent small molecules were published. But none of them were sufficiently drug-like, and to my knowledge none are in the clinic. Still, it is worth trying: 6PGHD may be more druggable, and approaches like this are likely to provide an answer.