25 June 2018

Fragments towards the clinic: ERK1/2

The first fragment-based drug to reach the market, vemurafenib, targets a mutant form of the kinase BRAF. Initial responses can be miraculous, but metastatic melanoma is an implacable foe, and patients often relapse. One mechanism of resistance involves upregulation of the kinases ERK1 and EKR2, which are downstream of BRAF. These are the subject of a paper just published in J. Med. Chem. by Tom Heightman and collaborators at Astex and Sygnature.

Most kinase drugs bind to the so-called hinge region of the protein, where the adenine moiety of ATP binds. Previously reported ERK1/2 inhibitors do indeed bind here, but one molecule from Merck (Schering) also binds in a second pocket some distance away. This molecule both inhibits the kinase and also blocks it from becoming phosphorylated itself, thereby preventing it from becoming activated.

Unfortunately this molecule did not have good pharmacokinetic properties, so the researchers sought a new series. They began with virtual, crystallographic, and thermal-shift fragment screens against ERK2. Compound 5 was active in a biochemical assay with impressive ligand efficiency. The bound structure showed multiple interactions with the protein as well as good vectors for further growth. Recognizing that spanning from the hinge region to the second pocket would require a large molecule, the researchers first sought to increase the sp3 character of the fragment to maximize solubility by replacing the pyrazole with a tetrahydropyran (compound 7), which also provided a nice boost in potency. 

Next, the researchers started growing towards the second pocket, guided by docking. This led to another large jump in potency, to the low nanomolar compound 11. Further growth to compound 16 led to marginal improvements in biochemical potency but did show antiproliferative activity in the Colo205 cell line, which contains the oncogenic BRAF mutation. Building into the second pocket, again guided by both modeling and crystallography, significantly improved the cell activity, ultimately leading to compound 27. Consistent with the design, the molecule blocks ERK activity as well as phosphorylation of ERK. It is also orally bioavailable, has good pharmacokinetics, and causes tumor regression in mouse xenograft models. Moreover, Compound 27 is quite selective for ERK1/2 in a panel of 429 kinases.

This is a lovely example of fragment-based and structure-based design. Although the final molecule is on the large side, careful attention to molecular properties maintained acceptable pharmacokinetics. The paper ends by noting that “further pharmacological characterization of 27 will be published elsewhere.” Indeed, Astex has taken an ERK1/2 inhibitor called ASTX029 into the clinic. Practical Fragments wishes everyone involved the best of luck.

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