The Rule of 3 (Ro3) is commonly used to design fragment libraries. First published as a brief 450-word (shorter than this post!) “update” in the discussion forum of Drug Discovery Today in 2003 by researchers at Astex, it has become the fragment equivalent of Chris Lipinski’s famous Rule of 5. Like that rule, it has its critics, notably our friends at FBDD and Molecular Design. A key point of contention is whether the Ro3 is too restrictive. A new paper in J. Med. Chem. from Gerhard Klebe’s group at Philipps University Marburg addresses this question.
The definition of the Rule of 3 provided by Astex is as follows:
The study indicated that such hits seem to obey, on average, a ‘Rule of Three’, in which molecular weight is <300, the number of hydrogen bond donors is ≤3, the number of hydrogen bond acceptors is ≤3 and ClogP is ≤3. In addition, the results suggested NROT (≤3) and PSA (≤60) might also be useful criteria for fragment selection.
One of the criticisms leveled at the Ro3 is that it is vague in terms of what constitutes a hydrogen bond acceptor. For example, does the nitrogen in an amide count? What about the nitrogen in an indolizine? Presumably for simplicity Lipinski assumed that any nitrogen or oxygen atom would count as a hydrogen bond acceptor. At the risk of engaging in exegesis, I propose that only oxygen or nitrogen atoms most medicinal chemists would consider as acceptors should be counted as acceptors, and that the limits on the number of rotatable bonds (NROT) and polar surface area (PSA) are optional.
In the recent paper, which is also discussed at FBDD and Molecular Design, Klebe and colleagues assembled a library of 364 fragments in which the average properties of the fragments were within Ro3 guidelines (with the exception of “Lipinski acceptors,” which would include the nitrogen of a tertiary amide), but there were some outliers. They then performed a fluorescence-based competition screen against the model protein endothiapepsin, resulting in 55 fragments that inhibited at least 40% at 0.5 or 1 mM concentration. These fragments were taken into crystallography trials, resulting in 11 structures. The paper presents lots of nice analysis of how these fragments bind to the protein. It also notes that:
Only 4 of the 11 fragments are consistent with the rule of 3. Restriction to this rule would have limited the fragment hits to a strongly reduced variety of chemotypes.
This may be an overstatement. Looking at the fragment hits more closely, all of them have molecular weights less than 300, and only one has ClogP > 3. Personally, given the problems of molecular obesity and the dangers of lipophilicity, I’d say that these aspects of the Ro3 are the most important, and find it notable that the hits were so compliant given that the library did contain larger, more lipophlic members.
All 11 of the crystallographically characterized fragments also have 3 or fewer hydrogen bond donors and TPSA < 60 Å2. Only two of the fragments have more than 3 rotatable bonds, but where the majority of the fragments fail to pass Ro3 is in the number of “Lipinski acceptors,” where 6 of the 11 have > 3. However, if you count hydrogen bond acceptors more judiciously (ie, compound 291 would have 3 acceptors rather than 4, since the aniline nitrogen would not be counted), only 1 of the 11 fragments has more than 3 acceptors.
Like most rules, the Rule of 3 should never be treated as a strait-jacket. That said, given the number of possible small fragment-sized molecules, and the necessarily limited size of any fragment collection, there seems to be plenty of room within the Rule of 3 for attractive chemical diversity.