Ligand deconstruction is a strategy for early-stage drug discovery in which a known hit is dissected into component fragments and one or more of them is optimized. When successful, it can lead to new and improved chemical series. One such example was just published in J. Med. Chem. by Andreas Lingel and colleagues at Novartis.
The researchers were interested in finding inhibitors of the protein methyltransferase polychrome repressive complex 2 (PRC2). Although some drugs have entered the clinic against this anticancer target, all of these are competitive with the cofactor S-adenosylmethionine (SAM), and resistant mutants are already being detected. Thus, the team sought a molecule that would act through a different mechanism.
PRC2 is actually a complex of four different proteins. The SET domain of the protein EZH2 contains the catalytic machinery, but a protein called EED stabilizes the protein complex and is necessary for activity. EED also recognizes trimethylated lysine residues on histone substrates, allosterically activating methyltransferase activity.
A high-throughput biochemical screen identified compound 1, which has low micromolar activity and is noncompetitive with the SAM cofactor and substrate peptide. Subsequent NMR and crystallography experiments revealed that compound 1 binds to EED, with the tertiary amine binding in the same pocket that normally recognizes trimethyllysine. However, compound 1 is quite complex, with three stereocenters. Thus, the researchers sought to deconstruct it to something simpler. They began by chopping off two of the rings – an unconventional disconnection but one supported by crystallography, which revealed that the terminal rings were not closely associated with the protein.
The resulting fragment 2 was down more than an order of magnitude in potency but had improved ligand efficiency. Crystallography confirmed that it binds in a very similar fashion to compound 1. Initial SAR was conducted around the methoxybenzyl moiety, which is buried within the enzyme. Most changes were not tolerated, but compound 9 did show somewhat improved activity.
Next, the researchers sought to optimize the positively charged portion of the molecule. Replacing the amine with a guanidine improved the affinity but at a cost to cell permeability. This led to a search for less conventional replacements, ultimately yielding the 2-aminoimidazole moiety in compound 16. Not only did this regain the activity of the initial molecule, it also shows good permeability and cell activity. Crystallography revealed that it too binds in a similar fashion to the original hit.
This is a nice example of fragment-assisted drug discovery (FADD), in which concepts from FBDD were used to simplify and optimize a hit from HTS. There is of course much more to do with this series, not the least of which is figuring out exactly how the molecules actually inhibit PRC2. Trimethyllysine-containing peptides that bind to EED normally activate the enzyme, yet the small molecules that bind to the same site somehow allosterically inhibit activity. Despite multiple crystal structures, the researchers frankly acknowledge that they were “not able to decipher the molecular basis for this phenomenon.” A number of conformational changes occur when EED binds to ligands, and perhaps these propagate through the protein complex. A picture may be worth 1000 words, but we may have to wait for the movie to learn the full story.