The meeting Development of Novel Therapies through Fragment Based Drug Discovery was held last week in Houston, Texas, organized by the Gulf Coast Consortium for Quantitative Biomedical Sciences. Although it was only a single day, it was packed, with thirteen speakers, a couple vendor lunch talks, and some two dozen posters. Below is just a flavor – please add your own impressions if you were there.
I kicked off the first session by giving an overview of FBDD, highlighting both pitfalls and successes. Beth Knapp-Reed (GlaxoSmithKline) then discussed efforts against LDHA, a target previously tackled successfully using fragment linking (see here and here). In this case, an HTS screen of 1.9 million compounds produced only a single hit that resulted in a crystal structure, while fragment screens yielded 16 structures at three binding sites. An NMR-based functional screen (using 13C-labeled substrate) was key to obtaining robust SAR, and using information from both the HTS hit and the fragments ultimately led to nanomolar inhibitors. Next, Tom Davies provided an overview of Astex’s discovery platform, focusing on a success with KEAP1. We recently highlighted research suggesting that crystallography should be used as a primary screen, which Astex does for some targets. Tom noted that doing so currently takes about a month, though only after spending somewhere between 3 and 12 months establishing a robust protein construct as well as crystallization and soaking conditions.
Jane Withka opened the next session by discussing the continuing evolution and use of the Pfizer fragment library. Out of 32 targets screened, only one produced no hits, and this was a particularly flexible protein. Interestingly, despite being relatively balanced among basic, acidic, and neutral members, hits were strong enriched in neutral compounds and strongly depleted in basic fragments. Neutral fragments were exactly what was sought by Daniel Cheney (Bristol-Meyers Squibb), who discussed successful efforts to replace a basic amidine moiety in Factor VIIa inhibitors. And Brad Jordan (Amgen) discussed the successful application of 19F NMR screening to find fragments that could be linked to previously discovered inhibitors to obtain selective picomolar inhibitors of BACE1.
Alex Waterson (Vanderbilt) started the first afternoon session by discussing how fragments had been successfully applied to RPA, RAS, and MCL-1. In the last case, the best compounds now have dissociation constants in the picomolar range, are active in cells, and show activity in xenograft models. IND-enabling studies are slated to begin as early as this year, with the hope of developing a cousin of venetoclax. Inna Krieger (Texas A&M) described how fragments could be used to understand the mechanism of M. tuberculosis malate synthase, while Dawn George (AbbVie) described selective (but inexplicably toxic) PKCθ inhibitors, which are now being made available to researchers to probe the biology. Finally, Damian Young (Baylor) gave an update on his sp3-carbon enriched fragments. Jane had mentioned that following up on hits with multiple stereocenters was not always easy, but Damian’s DOS approach efficiently and systematically yields each possibility. Whether these will meet the Safran-Zunft challenge remains to be seen.
The last session was focused on success stories. Michael Mesleh (Broad Institute) discussed Cubist’s bacterial DNA gyrase inhibitors. Marion Lanier (Takeda) described how fragment screening and careful medicinal chemistry led to a low nanomolar, selective inhibitor of BTK. With a molecular weight of just 318, the molecule is scarcely larger than a Texas fragment, and has good pharmacokinetics and activity in a rat arthritis model. And Yi Liu (Kura) discussed the optimization of covalent KRAS inhibitors originally discovered using Tethering.
This was my first visit to Houston, and I was struck by the number of researchers who had relocated from around the world, particularly from (previously) large(r) pharma companies. Whenever scientists meet the talk often turns to funding shortages, but not here: everyone seemed to have plenty of money and resources, and one of the organizers announced that he was trying to fill several positions. This was the first major fragment meeting in Texas but likely not the last – there is talk of turning it into a recurring event. And there are still several good upcoming events this year; early registration for FBLD 2016 closes in just a few weeks.