A frequent topic in fragment roundtable discussions concerns specificity: do fragments hit lots of targets, or just a few? Isabelle Krimm and colleagues at the Université de Lyon in France studied this question experimentally and report their results in a recent issue of J. Med. Chem. The paper provides data for the ongoing debate of whether and how much specificity a fragment should exhibit before being pursued for further lead development.
The researchers assembled a diverse set of 150 fragments and used NMR techniques to determine whether they bind to five different proteins. Three of the proteins, Bcl-xL, Bcl-w, and Mcl-1 are related members of the Bcl-2 family of antiapoptotic proteins, and at least the first of these has been successfully targeted using fragment-based methods. The fourth protein, PRDX5, has proven to be much less yielding to inhibitor discovery, while the fifth, human serum albumin (HSA), binds a wide variety of small molecules.
After applying 1D-NMR techniques (WaterLOGSY and STD) to all of their fragments against each of the five proteins, the researchers used more rigorous but less sensitive 2D-NMR (HSQC) to determine the binding sites of the hits. (This later study revealed, in agreement with previous results from the same lab, that the fragments all bind in the “hot spots” or active sites of the proteins.)
More than two-thirds of the fragments bound to at least one protein, a rather high hit rate. However, the hit rates for each protein varied considerably, with only 7 hits for PRDX5 and 72 for HSA (with a close second of 71 for Bcl-xL). Within the Bcl-2 family there was little specificity observed: Mcl-1, with 29 hits, shared all but one hit with either Bcl-xL or Bcl-2 or both; such non-specificity among related proteins has been discussed previously. In the case of HSA and Bcl-xL, although both proteins had similar numbers of hits, just over half of these were in common, demonstrating that fragment specificity is not difficult even with small-molecule sponges such as HSA. That said, many fragments were remarkably nonspecific, with 22 hitting four of the 5 proteins. Amazingly, all 7 of the hits against PRDX5 also hit all four other proteins.
The physicochemical properties of the fragments that hit one or more proteins were compared with those of the library as a whole, and although most of the parameters were similar, the ClogP values (a measure of hydrophobicity) were considerably higher for hits, and highest of all for the non-specific hits.
These findings are more evidence that, as predicted almost a decade ago, fragments can bind to more proteins than can larger, more complex molecules. The follow-up question, how much does this matter, is still up for debate. There are plenty of examples of developing specific inhibitors from non-specific starting points during the course of fragment optimization. But how non-specific is too non-specific? Would you feel comfortable pursuing any of the fragments that hit all of the proteins?