07 November 2016

Disrupting constitutive protein-protein interfaces

Protein-protein disruptions are notoriously difficult because the interfaces between proteins tend to be large and flat, with few of the deep pockets where small molecules prefer to bind. That's not to say they're impossible: the second approved fragment-derived drug targets a protein-protein interaction. This interaction, as with most others studied (see here, here, and here, for example), is transient: two proteins come together to transmit a biological signal, then dissociate. But many proteins form constitutive dimers or oligomers, and these tend to be even more challenging to disrupt. This is the class of targets discussed in a paper just published in J. Am. Chem. Soc.

Wei-Guang Seetoh and Chris Abell (University of Cambridge) were interested in the protein kinase CK2, a potential anti-cancer target. The enzyme is a tetramer containing two identical catalytic subunits (CK2α) and two identical regulatory units (CK2β). Previous experiments had shown that introducing mutations into CK2β that disrupted dimer formation decreased enzymatic activity and increased protein degradation. Would it be possible to find small molecules that did this?

Chris Abell is a major proponent of the thermal shift assay, in which a protein is heated in the presence of a dye whose fluorescence changes when it binds to denatured protein. The way this assay is normally conducted, small molecules are added, and if they bind to the protein they stabilize it, thus increasing the melting temperature (see here for an interesting counterexample).For oligomeric proteins, one might expect that anything that disrupts the oligomers would destabilize the proteins, thus lowering the thermal stability, and indeed this turned out to be the case in a couple model systems. Thus, the researchers screened dimeric CK2β against 800 fragments, each at the (very high) concentration of 5 mM. No fragments significantly increased the melting temperature, but 60 decreased the stability by at least 1.5 °C.

Best practice for finding fragments includes using multiple orthogonal methods, so all 60 hits were tested (at 2 mM each) in three different ligand-detected NMR assays: STD, waterLOGSY, and CPMG. Impressively, 40 of these showed binding in all three assays. There was no correlation between the binding affinity and the magnitude of thermal denaturation, which is not surprising because the thermal shift incorporates not just the enthalpy change of ligand binding but also the enthalpy change of protein unfolding. Thus, as the researchers note, “the extent of thermal destabilization cannot be used as a measure of its binding affinity.”

Next, all 40 confirmed fragments were tested at 2 mM to see whether they caused CK2β dimer dissociation, as assessed by native state electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (ESI-MS). 18 fragments shifted the equilibrium to monomeric protein, though interestingly no protein-fragment complexes could be observed. These 18 fragments also decreased dimerization in an isothermal titration calorimetry (ITC) assay.

There is still a long way to go: all the fragments are very weak, and preliminary SAR studies were unable to find analogs with significantly improved activity. Indeed, it is unclear where the fragments bind, or whether the binding site(s) are even ligandable. Still, the combined use of biophysical techniques on a particularly gnarly target make this an interesting study on the frontiers of molecular recognition.

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