Dynamic combinatorial chemistry (DCC) sounds incredibly cool. The idea is that libraries spontaneously form and reform. Add a protein and Le Châtelier's principle favors the formation of the best binders. In other words, not only does cream rise to the top, more cream is actually created.
The applications of DCC for fragment linking are obvious, and indeed early reports date back nearly twenty years to the dawn of practical FBDD. The latest results are described in a new paper in Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. by Anna Hirsch and collaborators mostly at the University of Groningen.
The researchers were interested in the aspartic protease endothiapepsin, which is a model protein for more disease-relevant targets. This is a dream protein: it is easy to make in large amounts, crystallizes readily, and is stable for weeks at room temperature. Readers will recall that this protein has also been the subject of multiple screening methods. Previous efforts using DCC had generated low micromolar inhibitors such as 1 and 2. These acylhydrazones form reversibly from hydrazides and aldehydes. Crystallography had also previously revealed that compound 1 binds in the so-called S1 and S2 subsites of endothiapesin while compound 2 binds in the S1 and S2’ subsites. In the current paper, the researchers enlisted DCC to try to combine the best of the binding elements.
To do this, the researchers chose isophthalaldehyde, which contains two aldehyde moieties, and nine hydrazides, which could give a total of 78 different bis-acylhydrazones. They incubated 50 µM of isophthalaldehyde with either four or five of the hydrazides (each at 100 µM), with or without 50 µM protein, and in the presence of 10 mM aniline to accelerate the exchange. Reactions were allowed to incubate at room temperature at pH 4.6 for 20 hours, after which the protein was denatured and the samples were analyzed by HPLC to see whether some products were enriched in the presence of protein.
Biologists may want to consider whether their favorite proteins would remain folded and functional under these conditions, and chemists may also balk at molecules containing an acylhydrazone moiety – let alone two. Leaving aside these concerns, though, what were the results?
As one would hope, some molecules were enriched over others when protein was present, though only by a modest two or three-fold. Two of the enriched molecules – both homodimers – were resynthesized and tested. Compound 13 was quite potent, and crystallography revealed that it binds in a similar fashion to compound 1, though electron density is missing for part of the molecule. Compound 16, on the other hand, is only marginally more potent than the starting molecules. Unfortunately the researchers do not discuss the activities of molecules that had not been enriched at all.
The paper ends by stating rather hopefully that DCC “holds great promise for accelerating drug development for this challenging class of proteases, and it could afford useful new lead compounds. This approach could be also extended to a large number of other protein targets.”
I’m not so sure.
I’m not so sure.
This is an interesting study; the work was carefully done and thoroughly documented—but I’m less sanguine about whether DCC will actually ever be practical for lead generation. Indeed, the very fact that the experiments were done well yet are incapable of distinguishing a strong binder from a weaker one argues that the technique is inherently limited. I would love to see DCC work, but it seems to me that, even after two decades of effort, DCC has not been able to move beyond proof of concept studies. Does anyone have a good counterexample?