The only US-based conference completely devoted to fragment-based drug discovery ended in San Diego this week. As with last year, I won’t attempt to summarize all of the talks – there was far more information presented than I have time to write (or that you probably have patience to read!) For those of you who were there, please feel free to mention some of the things I missed.
One of the points that Don Huddler (GlaxoSmithKline) and I (Carmot) made in the pre-conference short-course is that finding fragments is a solved problem. As Rod Hubbard (Vernalis, University of York) noted in his opening presentation, “it’s pretty simple to find fragments that bind; a graduate student can do it in a couple months.” Even membrane proteins are starting to yield to fragment-based screening, as Gregg Siegal (ZoBio, Leiden University) discussed in his closing session (see also here).
That’s not to say that new methods for finding fragments aren’t useful, particularly if they open new target space, are faster or more reliable, or provide new information. An example of the latter was the presentation by Denis Zeyer (NovAliX) on native mass-spectrometry (see also here). Because hydrophobic interactions are weaker in the gas phase than in water, it should be possible to select for molecules that bind predominantly through polar interactions. In fact, by gradually increasing the voltage in their MS instrument, Zeyer and colleagues generated “VC50” curves, the voltage at which half the compound dissociates from the protein. At least in one case, a higher VC50 correlated with the presence of an additional hydrogen bond to the protein compared with related molecules.
Polar contacts are generally associated with enthalpic rather than entropic interactions, and whether such fragments are preferable was the subject of some discussion, particularly at a breakfast round-table discussion. In contrast to a meeting just last year, several participants were actively collecting thermodynamic data, though there was some uncertainty as to what to do with it. This is a controversial subject; one person suggested that enthalpic binders are likely to be more hydrophilic than entropic binders, so just keeping an eye on lipophilicity is likely to be just as useful and far easier than actually measuring thermodynamic parameters. Charles Reynolds (Ansaris) provided an analysis that illustrates some of the difficulties in using thermodynamic data – I’ll follow up on this in a later post.
The shape of fragments has been previously discussed, and Ivan Efremov (Pfizer) gave a nice case study of a strikingly three-dimensional fragment: an X-ray screen of 340 molecules against BACE resulted in a single hit, a spirocyclic pyrrolidine. The electron density of this was so clear that it didn’t even need to be deconvoluted from the other three compounds in the pool, and medicinal chemistry ultimately led to low micromolar inhibitors.
There was general consensus that ligand efficiency (and various lipophilicity adjusted versions) is a helpful metric. One practitioner said that his company had sometimes pursued more chemically tractable but less ligand efficient fragments and generally came to regret those decisions. But a fragment with lower ligand efficiency could still be interesting: with fragments, even small changes could have huge effects on binding (see for example AT13387, which was discussed by Chris Murray of Astex). Thus, a bit of initial fragment optimization could be a good investment before pursuing more intensive chemistry, particularly if commercial or in-house analogs are available. Interestingly, I couldn’t find anyone who uses either fit quality or %LE.
In the early days of fragment-based lead discovery a common selling point was that it sped up drug discovery, but a theme in this meeting was that it is not necessarily faster but can provide leads against more difficult targets or better leads against “normal” targets. Of course, one has to be wary of taking a good fragment, slapping a bunch of grease on it, and turning it into a lipophilic monster.
Indeed, an analysis of fragment-derived leads published a couple years ago was not flattering. Taking up the thrown gauntlet on behalf of fragments, Chris Murray presented a retrospective analysis of all 42 fragment to lead programs at Astex (including 21 kinases and 9 proteases). The average parameters of these leads were considerably more attractive in terms of both molecular weight and ClogP that the published values of the HTS hits. At least according to this analysis, fragment approaches have the potential to deliver superior molecules, as long as one is disciplined and creative in how these approaches are applied.