Fragment-growing is a popular way to increase the activity of fragments, all the more so when there is an obvious place towards which to grow. In a paper published online in the J. Am. Chem. Soc., Iwan de Esch and colleagues at VU University Amsterdam describe the structural and thermodynamic consequences of one such effort, and conclude that binding in a certain normally closed pocket is enthalpically rather than entropically driven.
The researchers were interested in acetylcholine-binding protein (AChBP), a soluble and crystallizable homolog of an important class of ligand-gated ion channels. This is the same protein (and the same group) highlighted last year in the context of ligand efficiency hot spots. In the current work, a fairly potent fragment, compound 1, was co-crystallized with AChBP and the structure solved. This fragment binds in roughly the same position as the more potent natural product lobeline (compound 2), but lobeline contains a hydroxyphenethyl group that the fragment lacks (see figure). This moiety binds in a hydrophobic pocket that does not appear in the fragment complex due to the movement of a tyrosine residue. Recognizing the potential for the pocket to form, the researchers introduced this moiety into their own molecule, producing compound 3.
Gratifyingly, compound 3 binds about 50-fold more tightly than the initial fragment. This molecule was also co-crystallized with AChBP, and, as designed, the phenyl group binds in the “lobeline pocket". Moreover, compound 3 does not show a corresponding increase in affinity towards a version of AChBP from a different organism that does not have this pocket.
To correlate binding mode with thermodynamics, the researchers also characterized the binding of their compounds using surface plasmon resonance (SPR) and isothermal titration calorimetry (ITC). ITC measures enthalpy directly, and performing SPR analyses at different temperatures can also be used to dissect enthalpic and entropic terms. The two methods generally concurred, though the numbers did jump around a bit, and in a few cases SPR predicted negative (ie, unfavorable) entropy where ITC suggested positive (favorable) entropy for the same compound.
Both SPR and ITC indicated that the increase in potency for compound 3 over compound 1 is driven by enthalpy, not entropy. This is somewhat unexpected, as the contacts made by compound 3 are largely hydrophobic, and the simplistic view is that such contacts are usually entropy-dominated. (The added hydroxyl in compound 3 doesn’t appear to be doing anything useful, and in fact removing it increases potency roughly three-fold). The researchers suggest that, for poorly solvated hidden pockets such as this, enthalpy may dominate. Perhaps also the protein rearrangement necessary to open the pocket is entropically costly.
There is much more data in the paper than can be summarized here, and the notion that ligands that induce conformational changes in proteins could be enthalpic rather than entropic binders is an intriguing hypothesis. However, as a vigorous debate last year demonstrates, it is still unclear whether knowing the answer – as scientifically interesting as it may be – will have practical implications for drug discovery.