16 January 2017

Enthalpy revisited – and retired

The relative importance of enthalpy versus entropy for protein-ligand interactions has been a subject of considerable attention. In a 2009 post we suggested that it might be worthwhile to focus on fragments that bind predominantly enthalpically, and in 2011 we highlighted a paper suggesting that enthalpic binders may be more selective than entropic binders. But the universe has a way of confounding pet models – as we acknowledged in 2012 (twice). The best way forward is often with lots of data, which is exactly what we have in a new paper in Drug Disc. Today by György Keserű and collaborators at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Astex, and AstraZeneca.

The data in this case are sets of 284 protein-ligand interactions with thermodynamic binding data from the literature, 782 from Astex, and about 230 from AstraZeneca. Commendably, these data are provided in 103 pages of supporting information.

In order to analyze the data, the researchers developed a new metric, the Enthalpy-Entropy Index:


If IE-E = 0, it means that enthalpy and entropy both contribute equally to the free energy of binding; if IE-E > 0 it means that enthalpy dominates, and if IE-E > 1 it means that enthalpy needs to overcome an unfavorable entropy. Similarly, negative values mean that entropy dominates – completely so when IE-E < -1. (Note that, unlike enthalpy efficiency, this is a dimensionless ratio, which should please our friends over at Molecular Design.)

As it turns out, the vast majority of fragments bind to their targets with favorable enthalpy, and almost all of those that don’t are charged compounds in which desolvation of the charged bit could entail an enthalpic cost. The researchers also examined a set of 94 neutral fragment-sized and 44 larger molecules binding to 17 targets and found that, statistically speaking, enthalpy plays a more important role in the free energy of binding for fragments than for larger molecules. But things can change quickly: in one case, adding just two non-hydrogen atoms to a molecule improves the affinity by more than 4000-fold and changes the IE-E from -1.5 to +0.5.

The paper does an excellent job describing the challenges of collecting high-quality isothermal titration calorimetry (ITC) data. In a typical experiment, the heat measured with each injection is the same as “would fall on an A4 sheet of paper in 1 second when illuminated by a 40 Watt bulb placed nearly 5 kilometers away.” Errors can be caused by inaccurate concentrations, heat of dilution, and changes in buffer concentration or protonation state. An analysis of replicate measurements at Astex found that, while most of the replications were within 1 kcal/mol of each other, some were off by nearly 3 kcal/mol. However, these larger values were all associated with different forms of the protein, and so may not be considered true replicates, though they do indicate how changes in the protein far from the active site can have an effect on what is often considered (erroneously) a local interaction.

This also emphasizes the fact that, as the researchers note, “the measured binding enthalpy is a net value and the dissection of the individual contributions might be ambiguous.” Or, as Pete has previously stated, “the contribution of an individual protein-ligand contact is not strictly an experimental observable”.

From a molecular recognition standpoint I find all this quite interesting and even intuitive in a hand-wavy sort of way. As the researchers suggest, fragments, being small, have minimal surface area with which to make (often but not always entropically-driven) hydrophobic interactions. Instead, much of the binding energy comes from hydrogen-bond interactions, which are (again often but not always) predominantly enthalpic. Moreover, since the entropic cost of locking down any ligand onto a protein is on the order of 3-5 kcal/mol, fragments are already fighting against entropy, and this is exacerbated by low affinity.

But from a practical perspective, my earlier suggestion to focus on enthalpic fragments may have been simplistic: if you’ve found a fragment, its enthalpy of binding is almost certainly favorable, and even if it’s not, this could change with the slightest tweak. So unless we see something truly new, don’t expect many new posts on this topic.

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