We noted last week that one theme of the recent CHI FBDD meeting was the increasing throughput of crystallography.
structures can provide the clearest information on binding modes, and a key
function of standard screening cascades is to whittle the number of fragments
down to manageably small numbers for crystal soaking. Only a few groups have
used crystallography as a primary screen. A team led by Gerhard Klebe at
Philipps-Universität Marburg argues in ACS
Chem. Biol. that crystallography should be brought to the forefront. Crystal
The researchers were interested in the model protein endothiapepsin. As discussed last year, they had previously screened this protein against a library of 361 compounds using six different methods, and the agreement among methods was – to put it charitably – poor. Nonetheless, many hits that did not confirm in orthogonal assays produced crystal structures when soaked into the protein. Thus emboldened, the researchers decided to soak all 361 fragments individually into crystals of endothiapepsin. This resulted in 71 structures, a hit rate of 20%, higher than any of the other methods (which ranged from 2-17%). Even more shocking, 31 of the fragments were not identified by any of the other methods, and another 21 were only identified by one other method. Thus, a cascade of any two assays would have found, at best, only a quarter of the crystallographically validated hits.
In agreement with other recent work, the fragments bound in multiple locations, including eight subsites within the binding cleft as well as three potentially allosteric sites. Not all of these sites were found using other methods.
But are these fragments so weak as to be uninteresting? To find out, the researchers performed isothermal titration calorimetry (ITC) to determine dissociation constants for 59 of the crystallographic hits. Three of the 21 most potent (submillimolar) binders were not detected by any of the other methods, and another seven were only found by one.
What factors led to this crystallographic bonanza? First, the researchers used the very high concentration of 90 mM for each fragment (in practice sometimes <90 mM because of precipitation). Not surprisingly, solubility was important: 97% of the hits had solubilities of at least 1 mM in aqueous buffer, and the soaking solution contained 10% DMSO as well as plenty of glycerol and PEG. Achieving such high concentrations is harder when multiple fragments are present, and the researchers argue from some of their historical data that the common use of cocktails lowers success rates.
Primary crystallographic screening was an early strategy at Astex, and although this may not have been fully feasible 15 years ago, it seems they were on the right track. Of course, not all targets are amenable to crystallography, and not everyone has ready access to a synchrotron beam with lots of automation. But for those that are, it might be time to drop the pre-screens and step directly into the light.
How did different methods compare? Interestingly, functional assays such as high-concentration screening or reporter-displacement assays fared best, while electrospray ionization mass-spectrometry (ESI-MS) and microscale thermophoresis (MST) were close to random. This is in marked contrast to other reports for ESI-MS and MST, and the researchers are careful to note that “the choice and success of the individual biophysical screens likely depend on the target and expertise of the involved research groups.”