Mass spectrometry (MS) is one of the less common tools to find fragments. In the conceptually simplest approach (native mass spectrometry), you incubate your protein with a putative ligand and ionize the mixture. Fragment binding is detected by an increased mass for the complex, and the strength of binding by the ratio of heavier bound complex peak to protein peak. However, the liquid to gas phase transition is a big step, and often the complex does not survive. Aside from more specialized applications of MS (such as here, here, and here) there aren’t many published examples. A recent paper from Federico Sirtori and colleagues at Nerviano and Università degli Studi di Milano in Eur. J. Pharm. Sci. describes fragment screening by native MS in detail.
The researchers used the reliable model protein Hsp90, which was also used in a previous MS study and in benchmarking other techniques. One of the many benefits of Hsp90 is a wealth of well-characterized inhibitors with a range of affinities, and these were used to calibrate the technique. This turned out to be critical: beyond sample preparation itself (beware non-volatile buffer components), all kinds of parameters can be adjusted including various voltages, temperatures, vacuum strength, and ion source. Get one of these wrong and your non-covalent complex either fails to ionize or blows apart.
In addition to using published data on known compounds, the researchers ran both fluorescence polarization (FP) and surface plasmon resonance (SPR) assays to independently determine dissociation constants. Initially the results from MS (a Q-TOF) were quite different, but after optimization the team was ultimately able to find conditions that gave qualitatively as well as quantitatively similar results for ligands with affinities ranging from picomolar to ~100 micromolar.
Thus encouraged, the team embarked on a fragment screening campaign. The Nerviano fragment library consists of 1914 molecules mostly following the rule of 3, though halogenated fragments up to 380 Da are allowed as are compounds with up to 6 hydrogen bond acceptors. The fragments were run in mixtures of 5, with protein at 2.5 µM and each compound at the low concentration of 10 µM. Sample injection and data processing were automated, and the entire screen took 2 days and 2 mg of protein.
Given the low concentration of fragments, the researchers lowered the bar for potential hits, yielding 282 compounds. These were retested individually, yielding 146 confirmed hits that gave signals of 5.2-29.7% bound protein. This is a high hit-rate, particularly given that these binding levels suggest affinities in the 20-179 µM range. Indeed, only 5 fragments could be competed by a high-affinity binder, suggesting either that the others bind outside the active site or are non-specific (false positives). Regarding false negatives, Nerviano reported the results of an NMR fragment screen against Hsp90 last year, and 12 of 14 hits identified there could also be detected by MS. The other two were likely below the detection limit of the MS assay.
Unfortunately, the researchers do not discuss thermodynamics. In theory enthalpic interactions dominate over entropic interactions in the gas phase, but it is unclear whether any of the observed binders were strongly entropy-driven.
In the end, it appears that fragment screening by native MS is workable, but the sensitivity is probably lower than other techniques. Of course, increasing the ligand concentration would increase the sensitivity to weaker binders, but at the cost of more non-specific binding – which is already considerable. Also, Hsp90 is about the friendliest protein one can imagine. I would be reluctant to try this with a more challenging target that lacks good tool ligands. But if you want to give it a go, this paper provides a wealth of information for getting started. And if you have experience with native MS, please share it in the comments.