The approach, which is essentially a competition screen, is called single-injection thermal extinction, or SITE. In a conventional calorimetric assay, a ligand is added to the protein in a calorimeter, and the measured heat change upon binding is used to calculate enthalpy. In SITE, a protein is first incubated with the fragment to be tested in the calorimeter, and a known positive control binder is then added. If the fragment binds at the same site as the known binder, addition of the positive control will cause a smaller change in temperature, and this difference should reflect the enthalpy of binding of the fragment compared to the positive control.
To validate the system, the researchers tested the steroid-processing enzyme ketosteroid isomerase (KSI). They first ran an SPR screen of 2000 fragments at 0.2 mM. To weed out false positives, they used two different types of SPR chips, and looked closely at the binding curves; the paper has a nice summary of some of the pathologies that can occur. A total of 129 hits were identified, of which 44 were then tested in SITE and characterized more fully with SPR.
Interestingly, most of the most potent compounds – as assessed by SPR – also gave the strongest signals in SITE, suggesting that these compounds are binding largely through enthalpic interactions. A few of the best compounds were further characterized by conventional ITC, and these did in fact have better enthalpic efficiencies than the positive control (they had better ligand efficiencies too).
It would be interesting to know how SITE behaves with allosteric inhibitors or ligands that bind to different sites on the protein. And of course, the jury is still out on whether enthalpic binders really do make superior leads, and even whether it is possible to use thermodynamics prospectively in lead optimization. But with a 9-fold drop in protein consumption and an increase in speed, this technique may make it easier to get the data to answer these questions.