Earlier this year we highlighted a paper from Vernalis that described the use of NMR methods to discover inhibitors of the anti-cancer target Pin 1. In a recent issue of Bioorg. Med. Chem. Lett. the same team now reports a second series of compounds that inhibit this protein, also discovered and advanced through FBLD. The two papers together provide some interesting lessons.
Rather than using NMR, the researchers identified the second series of compounds with an inhibition assay. After screening 900 fragments at 2 mM, they obtained 40 hits, including 3 compounds previously discovered by NMR. Disturbingly though, follow-up NMR experiments confirmed binding for only 2 of the 37 new hits, suggesting that the remaining compounds may act through pathological mechanisms (see also here). Still, two hits are better than none, and the binding mode of one of the fragments (compound 3 in figure) was determined by X-ray crystallography. Several analogs of this were purchased and tested, and compound 5 was found to have an improved potency and ligand efficiency.
At this point chemistry entered the picture. The researchers synthesized several analogs of compound 5, guided by crystallography and modeling. This led to compound 10e and eventually to compound 20, with sub-micromolar biochemical activity and measurable cell activity.
Ultimately though, as in the previous Pin1 series, even this modest cellular potency was gained at the cost of unacceptable increases in size and hydrophobicity. This brings up an interesting question: at what point do you declare a target undruggable? The authors note that “the nature of the Pin1 active site makes it difficult to optimise hits into drug-like molecules.”
Fragment-based approaches can sometimes deliver inhibitors to challenging targets where HTS has failed. However, if the inhibitors can’t be transformed into drugs, is finding them actually a good thing? Researchers are getting better at improving potency at the same time as ligand efficiency for some targets, but ultimately getting to clinical candidates for harder targets may come down to how many resources you are willing to throw at a project: molecules such as ABT-263, though far from rule-of-5 compliant, are doing well in the clinic, but only after the investment of dozens if not hundreds of people-years.