05 August 2019

Fragments vs RAS family proteins: A chemical probe

RAS family proteins are considered a holy grail of oncology research. Way back in 2012 we discussed a couple papers disclosing low affinity fragments that bind in a small, shallow, polar pocket found in KRAS, NRAS, and HRAS. At the time we wondered “whether this is a ligandable site on the protein.” Last year we highlighted a paper proving that the site is, in fact, ligandable, as exemplified by the mid-nanomolar molecule Abd-7. A paper just published in Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA by Darryl McConnell and collaborators from Boehringer Ingelheim and Vanderbilt University (including Steve Fesik, who published one of the 2012 reports) describes successful development of another ligand. (See here for a fun animated description set to music.)

Consistent with the “undruggable” reputation of RAS family proteins, a high-throughput screen of 1.7 million compounds failed to find anything useful. In contrast, a library of just 1800 fragments screened using STD NMR and MST identified 16 fragments that bind to an oncogenic mutant form of KRAS, as confirmed by 2-dimensional (HSQC) NMR. A separate HSQC NMR screen of 13,800 fragments identified several dozen more, though all the fragments from both screens have dissociation constants weaker than 1 mM. SAR by catalog led to amine-substituted indoles such as compound 11, which modeling suggested could form a salt bridge to an aspartic acid side chain.

The pocket in which all of these molecules bind, between the so-called switch I and switch II regions of KRAS, is much smaller than typical drug-binding sites, but modeling suggested that fragment growing could pick up an additional hydrogen bond, leading to compound 15. Crystallography confirmed the predicted binding mode of this molecule, and informed additional structure-based design, leading first to compound 18 and ultimately to BI-2852, with low or sub-micromolar affinity for wild-type and mutant KRAS, NRAS, and HRAS as assessed by ITC. The researchers also confirmed that the enantiomer is about 10-fold less potent, thereby providing a control compound. Commendably, the researchers have made BI-2852 and the enantiomer available (for free!) to the research community as a chemical probe.

A crystal structure of KRASG12D bound to BI-2852 (cyan) compared with Abd-7 (magenta) reveals how shallow the pocket is; both molecules are largely surface-exposed. The conformational flexibility of the protein is also interesting: Abd-7 would not be accommodated by the protein conformation bound by BI-2852.

The biology is also quite interesting – and complicated. RAS family proteins behave as molecular switches, cycling between the “on” (GTP-bound) state and the “off” (GDP-bound) state, with these transitions assisted by other proteins. On-state RAS drives cell-proliferation and survival. Molecules that bind at the switch I/II pocket block the transition from off to on, but they also block the transition from on to off. Thus, cellular effects are modest. Moreover, BI-2852 hits all RAS isoforms, which could lead to unacceptable toxicity in animals.

This is a lovely paper, but I do quibble that the promise of the title – “drugging an undruggable pocket on KRAS” – remains to be demonstrated. First, both the biochemical and cell-based potency need to be further improved. As the molecule is already large, gaining this needed potency could come at the cost of physicochemical properties. Indeed, the researchers do not discuss the pharmacokinetics of BI-2852. And finally, as the authors themselves note, they will probably need to improve selectivity to spare one or more wild-type RAS isoforms.

What this work does establish indisputably is that the switch I/II pocket is ligandable, though not without effort, as indicated by the 42 authors. Whether or not the site is actually druggable may require another seven years to determine.


Darryl B McConnell said...

Thanks Dan for the excellent writeup. Indeed it was a herculean effort from the whole team at BI and Steve‘s team at VU to get this far. Thanks also for your druggable „quibble“ - we do now need more potency, more selectivity and PK for a drug. Your goal of seven years (to treating the first non-G12C KRAS cancer patients) with a switch I/II drug is one that I would like us to achieve with some time to spare. Here is a second recent paper „KRAS Binders Hidden in Nature“ which we hope will also inspire chemists to take on RAS. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/chem.201902810

Dan Erlanson said...

Very cool, and best of luck - I look forward to adding the drug to the growing list of FBDD-derived molecules in the clinic!

Dom Esposito said...

Kudos especially to Darryl and BI for making the compound accessible through their OpnMe platform. Rather than having 20 labs waste time and money synthesizing this potentially valuable tool compound, I got a sample in my lab in under a week from BI at no cost. I wish more companies were this open in sharing reagents. Looking forward to playing with this compound in some of our assays!