Epigenetic readers recognize modified amino acids in histone proteins to cause changes in gene expression. Readers containing bromodomains, which recognize acetylated lysine residues, have received particular attention, and fragment-based approaches have led to at least a couple bromodomain inhibitors entering clinical development. But the numerous bromodomains are not the only epigenetic readers to recognize acetylated lysine residues. In a recent paper in J. Med. Chem., Apirat Chaikuad, Stefan Knapp, and collaborators at Goethe-University Frankfurt and University of Oxford describe their efforts targeting a different family.
YEATS domains are present in four human proteins, three of which have been linked to cancer. Unlike bromodomains, YEATS domains recognize lysine residues modified with acyl derivatives beyond acetyl, such as propionyl, butyryl, and crotonyl. The biological significance of these modifications is not clear, and no inhibitors of these proteins had been reported when the work began.
The researchers focused on the oncogenic eleven-nineteen-leukemia protein (ENL). They solved the first apo crystal structure of ENL (ie, without a bound ligand), which revealed that although the binding pocket was pre-formed, there was some flexibility in the side chain residues. They also noted distinct differences in how the acylated lysine is recognized, including the absence of an asparagine residue that is conserved in all bromodomains, and a more-open pocket that can accommodate larger acyl chains.
Next, the researchers chose a set of nineteen fragments containing a central amide bond to mimic acetylated lysine. None of these showed activity in a thermal shift assay, but when the ligands were soaked (at 5-40 mM) into crystals of ENL, electron density consistent with binding was observed for ten of them, and two could be modeled with some confidence. (For the other nine compounds, the crystals no longer diffracted.) These two fragments also showed binding by isothermal titration calorimetry (ITC). This is a useful reminder of the need for orthogonal assays, and the power of crystallography to detect weak hits. Compound 19, a rather super-sized fragment, was similar to compounds identified in a high-throughput screen that the researchers reported here and here.
story, this effort could probably be considered more fragment-assisted than fragment-based. But whatever the precise genealogy, hopefully molecular descendants of compound 20 will help to elucidate the biological poetry of the YEATS domains.