Surface plasmon resonance (SPR) has become a primary tool for finding fragments. One of its attractions is that, in addition to requiring only small amounts of protein, it can provide dissociation constants (Kd values) and, for tighter binders, on-rates and off-rates. However, SPR is not the only biosensor-based technology out there. Biolayer interferometry is a related technique, and, as judged by the discussion following the FBLD 2010 meeting, is clearly of interest to many people. A paper published online by Charles Wartchow and colleagues in J. Comput. Aided Mol. Des. provides a description of the technology and comparison with other methods.
Like SPR, BLI requires immobilization of the protein target to a surface; the current paper uses biotin-labeled proteins and streptavidin coated biosensors from ForteBio. Unlike SPR, the technology does not rely on samples flowing through tiny capillaries, and up to 16 protein-labeled sensors can be simultaneously dipped directly into different solutions of small molecules arrayed in a 384-well plate. BLI relies on changes in the interference pattern of light between the sensor and the solution caused when a small molecule binds to a protein on the surface of the sensor.
In the current study, the authors studied three proteins: Bcl-2, JNK1, and eIF4E. Initially a library of 140 fragments was screened in triplicate at 200 micromolar concentration against each of the three targets. Both JNK1 and Bcl-2 gave very high hit rates (24 and 21%, respectively), but eIF4E gave a much more “fragment typical” hit rate of 3.5%. This protein was subsequently screened against 6500 compounds, a task which required 1 mg of protein, 10 days, and 700 sensors (which needed to be periodically replaced throughout the campaign).
After curating the eIF4E hits to remove compounds that gave anomalously high signals or slow off-rates, the remaining molecules were then retested in a second screen, which confirmed 50% of the remaining hits, for an overall hit rate of 1.3%. However, many of these still looked suspicious when they were tested in 8-point titration curves; it seems that, like SPR, BLI is also prone to false-positive problems.
The researchers also ran biochemical and SPR screens on some of the targets. For eIF4E, the overlap between hits coming from BLI and those from biochemical screens was 52%, though many of these are derivatives of a single scaffold. Another subset of the common hits gave non-ideal behavior, calling into question their mechanism of action. It remains unclear whether the BLI hits that were not active in biochemical assays are real, and if so, relevant.
In the end, the authors conclude that:
These fragment screening studies demonstrate that BLI is suitable for small molecule characterization and fragment screening.
But they continue:
Hit assessment… with BLI and SPR is non-trivial, however, and although numerous hits from the BLI, SPR, and biochemical assays were characterized, most of the BLI and SPR data obtained from the examination of a concentration series in the micromolar range showed linear relationships with respect to concentration, unreasonably high signals, or slow off-rates.
Clearly, like all techniques, one should not rely on BLI alone. What remains to be seen is whether BLI has advantages over related techniques such as SPR, whether in terms of speed, sensitivity, resistance to artifacts, or cost. Several of the authors of the paper are from Roche, but the paper does not make clear whether BLI is becoming integrated into the workflow there. Is anyone else out there using BLI? If so, what has been your experience?