The state of antibiotic drug discovery is – to put it mildly – dangerously poor. Not only do you have all the challenges inherent to drug discovery, you’re dealing with organisms that can mutate more rapidly than even the craftiest cancer cells. And then there’s the commercial challenge: earlier this month the biotech company Achaogen filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, less than a year after winning approval for a new antibiotic.
As Douglas Adams’s Golgafrincham learned, complacency about microbial threats is suicidal. But what can any one of us do? Chris Swain, whom we’ve previously highlighted on Practical Fragments, is involved with a consortium of researchers called Open Source Antibiotics. Their mission: “to discover and develop new, inexpensive medicines for bacterial infections.” And they are asking for our help. More on that below.
The researchers initially chose to focus on two essential enzymes necessary for cell wall biosynthesis, MurD and MurE, both of which are highly conserved across bacteria and absent in humans. They conducted a crystallographic fragment screen of both enzymes at XChem, soaking 768 fragments individually at 500 mM concentration. As we’ve written previously, you’ll almost always get hits if you screen crystallographically at a high enough concentration.
For MurD, four hits were found, all of which bind in the same pocket (in separate structures). Interestingly, this pocket is not the active site, but adjacent to it. The binding modes of the fragments are described in detail here, and the researchers suggest that growing the fragments could lead to competitive inhibitors. The fragments also bind near a loop that has been proposed as a target for allosteric inhibitors, so growing towards this region of the protein would also be an interesting strategy.
MurE was even more productive, with fragments bound at 12 separate sites. (Though impressive, that falls short of the record.) Some of these sites are likely artifacts of crystal packing, or so remote from the active site of the enzyme that they are unlikely to have any functional effects. However, some fragments bind more closely to the active site, and would be good candidates for fragment growing.
If this were a typical publication one might say "cool," and hope that someone picks up on the work sometime in the future. But this, dear reader, is different.
The researchers are actively seeking suggestions for how to advance the hits. Perhaps you want to try running some of these fragments through the Fragment Network? Or do you have a platform, such as “growing via merging,” AutoCouple, or this one, that suggests (and perhaps even synthesizes) new molecules? Perhaps you want to use some of the fragments to work out new chemistry? The consortium has a budget to purchase commercial compounds, and will also accept custom-made molecules. In addition to crystallography, they have enzymatic assays, and are building additional downstream capabilities.
The Centers for Disease Control identifies antibiotic resistance as one of the most serious worldwide health threats. Some have called for a global consortium—modeled after the International Panel for Climate Change—to tackle the problem. But in the meantime, you can play a role yourself. If you would like to participate, you can do so here. The bugs are not waiting for us – and they are already ahead.