15 April 2019

Fourteenth Annual Fragment-based Drug Discovery Meeting

CHI’s Drug Discovery Chemistry (DDC) meeting took place last week in San Diego. I think this was the largest yet, with >825 attendees, a third from outside the US, and nearly 70% from industry. The initial DDC meeting in 2006 had just four tracks, of which FBDD is the only one that remains. This one had nine tracks and four one-day symposia, so it was obviously impossible to see everything. Like last year, I’ll just stick to broad themes.

Success Stories
As always, clinical compounds received deserved attention. Among two I’ve covered recently, Paul Sprengeler described eFFECTOR’s MNK1/2 inhibitor eFT508, while Wolfgang Jahnke discussed Novartis’s allosteric BCR-ABL1 inhibitor ABL001. As previously mentioned, ABL001 is a case study in persistence: the project started in stealth mode and was put on hold a couple times until seemingly intractable problems could be overcome.

Another story of persistence, albeit with a less happy outcome, was presented by Erik Hembre, who discussed Lilly’s BACE1 program. Teddy wrote about their first fragment-derived molecule to enter the clinic, LY2811376, back in 2011. Unfortunately this molecule showed retinal toxicity in three-month animal studies, so the researchers further optimized their molecule to LY2886721, which made it to phase 2 studies before dropping out due to elevated liver enzymes. Reasoning that a more potent molecule would require a lower dose and thus lower the risk of toxicity, the researchers used structure-based drug design to get to picomolar LY3202626, which also made it to phase 2 before being scuttled due to the apparent invalidation of BACE1 as an Alzheimer’s disease target.

Talks on BCL2 and MCL1 inhibitors from Vernalis, AstraZeneca, and Servier all involved fragments in some capacity, but unfortunately they were in the protein-protein interaction track which was held concurrently with the FBDD session I was chairing. Suffice it to say you can expect to hear more about the phase 1 compounds AZD5991 and S654315.

A few earlier-stage success stories included Till Maurer’s discussion of the Genentech USP7 program (see here), Santosh Neelamkavil on Merck’s Factor XIa inhibitors, and Rod Hubbard on Vernalis DYRK1A, PAK1, and LRRK2 inhibitors. We have previously written about how displacing “high-energy” water molecules can be useful, and this tactic was used by Sven Hoelder at the Institute of Cancer Research for their BCL6 inhibitors. Last week we highlighted halogen bonds, which proved important for transforming molecules that simply bind to MEK1 to molecules that bind and inhibit the protein, as described by AstraZeneca’s Paolo Di Fruscia.

The MEK1 story Paolo told began with a very weak (0.45 mM) fragment that the team was able to advance to 300 nM in the absence of structure, though they did eventually obtain a crystal structure that supported further optimization. On the topic of crystallography, Marc O’Reilly discussed the Astex MiniFrag approach, which we recently wrote about here. Only a couple of these fragments contain a bromine atom, but Marc did mention that, of the 10,051 X-ray complexes solved at Astex, a number show halogen bonds, including some to the hinge region in kinases.

At FBLD 2018 Astex’s Chris Murray showed the first cryo-EM structure of a fragment bound to a protein, and Marc confirmed that they have now obtained structures of fragments bound to two targets, with fragments as small as 120 Da and resolution as good as 2.3 Å. They are increasing automation, with turnaround times of less than 24 hours in some cases. Santosh also mentioned that Merck is applying cryo-EM to fragments.

Frank McCormick (UCSF) highlighted multiple fragment-finding methods used to discover inhibitors against RAS family proteins, which are responsible for more than a million cancer deaths each year. In addition to stalwarts such as crystallography and NMR, these include less common methods such as Tethering and the second harmonic generation (SHG) approach for detecting conformational changes used by Biodesy. RAS was reported as a cancer driver almost forty years ago, but only now are the first direct inhibitors entering the clinic – a testimony to both the challenging nature of the target and how far we’ve come.

SHG and Tethering were also highlighted elsewhere: Charles Wartchow described how SHG identified 392 hits from a collection of 2563 fragments against an E3 ligase bound to a target protein at Novartis, while Michelle Arkin described her use of Tethering at UCSF to find molecules that could stabilize a complex of 14-3-3 bound to a specific client protein (see here).

An effective sponsored talk was presented by Björn Walse of SARomics Biostructures and Red Glead Discovery, who described weak affinity chromatography (WAC). Once they saw the schedule for DDC, they looked for a target that would be presented shortly before their presentation, and chose the protein USP7 as a test case. Beginning in January, they screened a library of 1200 fragments to obtain 34 hits, of which 7 confirmed in a thermal shift assay. This led to an SAR-by-catalog experiment, and 11 of the 31 fragments tested showed activity, as did a Genentech positive control compound.

All methods can generate false positives and false negatives (see for example here and here), some of which were described in an excellent talk by Engi Hassaan of Philipps University. Engi discussed how improving the sensitivity of an STD assay by decreasing salt concentration identified more fragments that had previously been found by crystallographic screening. She also presented a case study of how introducing a tryptophan residue into a small protein to facilitate purification led to problems down the road when the tryptophan side chain blocked a key pocket in the crystal lattice. Gregg Siegal (ZoBio) also highlighted a case where a fragment bound to the dimer interface in a crystal structure, whereas in solution the fragment bound to the active site, as observed by NMR.

Finally, among computational methods, Pawel Sledz (University of Zurich) gave a nice overview of the SEED and AutoCouple methods, while Paul Hawkins (OpenEye) described rapid searching of more than 10 billion chemical structures using ROCS (rapid overlay of chemical features). SkyFragNet is looking closer with each passing year.

There is much more to say, so please feel free to comment. Several good events are still coming up this year, and mark your calendar for 2020, when DDC returns to San Diego April 13-17!

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