One of the key advantages of fragment-based drug discovery is that, since there are fewer fragments than lead-sized or drug-sized molecules, it is possible to sample chemical space far more efficiently with fragments than with larger molecules. At least, that’s the theory, but does is it hold true in the real world?
To put it another way, do fragments sample all of the space in which drugs are found? And what kinds of fragments are best for this sampling? In the most recent issue of J. Med. Chem., Stephen Roughley and Rod Hubbard of Vernalis address such questions.
The system they investigate, heat shock protein 90 (Hsp90), is an ideal model system: it is both a popular anti-cancer target as well as structurally tractable, and is thus arguably the most heavily explored single target in terms of fragment-based lead discovery. At least 8 antagonists have entered the clinic, of which at least 2 have come from fragments (see the posts on AT13387, NVP-BEP800/VER-82576, and posts on Evotec compounds discovered by fragment growing or linking.)
Vernalis has had a long-running fragment-based program targeting Hsp90, which has resulted in numerous fragments whose binding modes have been determined by X-ray crystallography. Roughley and Hubbard analyzed these fragments and compared them to published inhibitors. Just 5 distinct fragments can be mapped onto all of the clinical compounds: a handful of fragments effectively samples relevant chemical space. As the authors put it:
For Hsp90 at least, the fragments do cover an appropriate chemical space; what is then important is the imagination of the chemist in evolving the fragments into potent inhibitors.
The second point – about the imagination of the chemist – is critical. Mapping fragments onto elaborated molecules is easier to do retrospectively than prospectively; a cynic could argue that methane is a fragment of just about any drug out there. However, Roughly and Hubbard also point out that, particularly in cases such as this where there are many co-crystal structures, fragments can help identify bioisosteres, including cryptic ones that would not be obvious purely from studying functional SAR.
The paper also addresses the issue of optimal library design, in particular the dilemma of size. Although all five representative fragments were found in an initial set of just 719 fragments, subtle changes can dramatically change the binding mode, an issue we’ve touched on previously. It may not be practical to have multiple similar fragments present in a primary screening library, but testing close analogs after identifying initial fragment hits is likely to be worthwhile.
Finally, one of the concerns about fragment-based approaches is that, if everyone is buying the same set of fragments from the same suppliers and screening them against the same targets, they will end up in the same place – and stumbling over each others’ intellectual property. Reassuringly, this turns out not to be the case:
Even though the various companies discovered rather similar compounds from a fragment screen, exploiting similar binding motifs, there were no exact matches. [Also], the subsequent evolution of the fragments sometimes took very different paths and produced mostly very different chemical leads and candidates.
If this holds true for such heavily mined targets as Hsp90 (and kinases, as discussed previously) it should be even more true for newer classes of targets.
There is a wealth of information in this paper, and it is worth perusing, especially if you find yourself longing for some science over the long holiday weekend.