20 April 2015

Tethering versus RNA

Last week we highlighted one of the less common fragment-finding methods, and today we turn to another. Tethering uses reversible disulfide exchange chemistry to trap thiol-containing fragments near binding sites. Back when we developed the technology at Sunesis we used cysteine residues in proteins. We occasionally discussed applying it to nucleic acids, but at the time it was hard to make a good business case. Now that microRNAs (miRNAs) have become hot, there is more interest in going after nucleic acid targets, and in a recent paper in Molecules Kiet Tran and Peter Beal (UC Davis) and Michelle Arkin (UC San Francisco) have done just that.

The researchers were interested in an RNA sequence that is cleaved in cells to generate miR-21, a potential cancer target. The idea is to find small molecules that bind to pre-miR-21 and prevent its processing to the mature miRNA. To perform Tethering, the researchers first introduced a thiol group into adenosine and incorporated this into RNA. They made two separate versions of pre-miR-21, with the modified adenosine at a different site in each, and also made a control RNA with a completely different sequence.

Next, they incubated the modified RNAs with 30 different disulfide-containing small molecules under partially reducing conditions and used mass spectrometry to identify those that covalently bound. As expected most showed minimal binding, but there were a couple hits. One of these, a 2-phenylquinoline, bound to both modified versions of the pre-mR-21 as well the control RNA, suggesting non-specific binding. In fact, 2-phenylquinoline is a known intercalator, so while its identification is not surprising, it does validate the ability of Tethering to identify binders. The other hit, however, appeared to be specific for one of the two pre-mR-21 sequences.

Of course, there is still a long way to go; it is unclear how much affinity the hit has for the RNA, or how specific it would prove if tested against a large panel of decoy RNAs. A key challenge for Tethering – as with many fragment-finding methods – is figuring out what to do with a hit. This is all the more true with RNA, about which we’ve written several times over the years. Still, one nice feature of Tethering is that it allows one to target a specific site of interest. Also, the covalent (disulfide) bond helps with both crystallography and modeling. It will be fun to watch this story develop.

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