22 November 2009

Too many aromatics stink

A recent discussion centered on whether fragment libraries should be designed to include more “3-dimensional” molecules and reduce the number of flat, aromatic compounds. Two new papers suggest that doing so may improve pharmaceutical properties. What effect this would have on screening success is still unclear.

The first paper, published by Timothy Ritchie and Simon Macdonald of GlaxoSmithKline in this month’s Drug Discovery Today, correlates the number of aromatic rings with several metrics associated with success in drug development. For this analysis, each ring in a fused system is counted separately, so indole is counted as having two aromatic rings. The researchers conclude that more than three aromatic rings correlates with an increased risk of compound attrition during drug development:
The fewer the number of aromatic rings contained in an oral drug candidate, the more developable that candidate is likely to be.
This is not surprising, but with their access to a vast internal data set the researchers provide considerable supporting evidence. For example, the mean aromatic ring count declines from 3.3 to 2.3 as GSK compounds move from preclinical candidate selection to proof-of-concept in humans. Measured (kinetic) solubility decreases dramatically with increasing ring count: even two aromatic rings leads to many low solubility compounds, and with four aromatic rings the median solubility is only 0.012 mg/ml. Both c log P and log D increase with increasing ring count, as do serum albumin binding, P450 3A4 inhibition, and hERG inhibition – all factors one usually wants to decrease in drug development.

One caveat is that the authors do not control for size. As aromatic rings are added, molecular weight is likely to increase, and thus many of the properties could simply reflect the pharmaceutical liabilities of larger molecules. This is where the second paper comes in. In J. Med. Chem., Frank Lovering and colleagues at Pfizer (nee Wyeth) analyze the effect of aromaticity itself by defining a simple metric:

Fsp3 = number of sp3 hybridized carbons / total carbon count

The smaller the number, the more aromatic the compound; the larger the number, the less aromatic. Besides being a straightforward measure of saturation, the formula inherently controls for molecular size.

When the researchers examined published data sets, they found that the mean Fsp3 increases from 0.36 for 2.2 million molecules in discovery to 0.47 for 1179 approved drugs. They also investigated measured solubility and found a strong correlation: 104 molecules with a log S of -6 (quite insoluble) had an average Fsp3 of 0.31, while 194 molecules with a log S of 0 (very soluble) had an average Fsp3 of 0.56. The effect is even more striking with melting points, which negatively correlate with solubility: 1153 molecules with a melting point of 125 deg. C had an average Fsp3 of 0.31, while 375 molecules with a melting point of 275 deg. C had an average Fsp3 of 0.18.

OK, so let’s say we accept the premise that increasing aromatic character in a molecule leads to lower solubility and worse properties overall. The easiest solution might be to reduce the number of aromatics in a screening collection, but would this really be wise? Ritchie and MacDonald note that aromatics, with their rigid structures, are likely to have increased potency relative to unsaturated molecules. And particularly for fragment libraries, you want all the binding energy you can get.

An interesting study would be to correlate the hit rate for fragments with their aromatic character. Does the hit rate increase with decreasing Fsp3? These data must exist in companies that have been doing FBDD for years. Indeed, at FBLD 2009, Ijen Chen of Vernalis presented a nice analysis of hits against 12 targets, in which she noted that roughly 2/3 of the fragment library members didn’t hit any of the targets. I don’t think she mentioned aromaticity specifically, but she did note that the hits tended to be slightly more rigid and hydrophobic than the non-hits – just what you would expect for low-Fsp3 molecules.

So by all means avoid having too many aromatics, but don’t go to extremes: it’s finding the right balance of binding energy and pharmaceutical properties that makes drug discovery such a tricky business.

16 November 2009

NMR vs other methods

Fragment-based lead discovery owes much of its popularity to NMR: the SAR by NMR papers published by Abbott in the mid 1990s demonstrated both the power and the practicality of the approach. Recently SPR has also come into its own as a means for screening fragments, and in a paper in this month’s issue of Drug Discovery Today Claudio Dalvit of Novartis and the Italian Institute of Technology compares these two techniques, along with fluorescence spectroscopy. Not surprisingly given the author’s longstanding research interest, NMR comes out favorably, though with the recommendation that the techniques are complementary, so researchers should combine techniques rather than simply selecting one over another.

As I read the paper, I wondered why fluorine-labeled fragments are not used more widely; Dalvit’s group published another paper about this approach recently in JACS. Fluorine has a strong NMR signal and is very sensitive to the local environment, so when a fluorine-containing fragment binds to a protein this can be easily detected. In fact, the dynamic range for this type of assay is so great that fragment binding can be detected at concentrations several orders of magnitude lower than their dissociation binding constants.

This seems like a very powerful approach, but I haven’t seen many other people using it. Are folks concerned about the need for fluorine in every fragment (although many are commercially available) or is there something else I’m missing?

12 November 2009

A tale of two deals

Two deals involving companies in the fragment space were announced today. I don’t have inside information on either of these, but superficially they are strikingly different.

In the first, Australia’s Biota has agreed to acquire UK-based Prolysis Limited, which previously published some nice work on using FBLD to discover new antibiotic leads (see here and here). The price? Just $10.8 million. However, Biota did say it plans to invest up to $25 million over the next three years on programs Prolysis started.

At the same time, UK-based Astex Therapeutics announced a new partnership with GlaxoSmithKline. The deal is for multiple targets in multiple therapeutic areas, with Astex focused on fragment screening and lead discovery and GSK focused on optimization of the resulting leads as well as preclinical and clinical development. The price? $33 million in up-front cash and equity, with a total potential of more than $500 million (BioBucks).

Astex of course is one of the few intact survivors of the first wave of fragment-based companies and has put several compounds into the clinic, including AT9283, AT7519, and others. It’s encouraging to see that deals of this size are still being done for what look to be fairly early stage collaborations.

06 November 2009

Remembering Warren Delano

For those of you who haven’t heard, Warren Delano, author of PyMOL, died earlier this week. His sister Jen has established a blog for people to record their memories.

Many of you have used PyMOL for visualizing crystallographic and NMR structures. Even if you haven’t used the program directly, hardly a week goes by without papers appearing in Science, Nature, and other high-profile journals adorned with beautiful illustrations created with his software. Every protein-fragment structure I’ve looked at in detail has been through the lens of PyMOL.

Warren and I overlapped in Jim Wells’ group at Genentech, and Warren was one of the first people to join Sunesis, where he stayed until PyMOL became so successful that he left to devote himself to it full time. He was a brilliant programmer, a gifted scientist, and a valued friend.

Warren’s insights and creations illuminated macromolecular structures with the clarity of science and the grace of art. The world is darker without him.