An old curse runs, "may you live in interesting times." And 2020 has been interesting indeed. Amid all the tumult, Practical Fragments will maintain its tradition of ending the year with a post highlighting conferences and reviews.
Despite the travel restrictions caused by COVID-19, some conferences did go ahead, adapted to online formats: I highlighted CHI’s Fifteenth Annual Fragment-based Drug Discovery and their Eighteenth Annual Discovery on Target. Although these were quite successful, I think most of us are looking forward to returning to in-person events sometime in the coming year.
Perhaps because so many people were stuck working from home, the number of reviews of potential interest to fragment fans has soared to a record number of more than twenty. I’ve tried to group these thematically.
If you’re looking for a concise yet thorough review, Harren Jhoti and colleagues at Astex provide one in Biochem. Soc. Trans. Harren is one of the pioneers of FBDD, and the review touches on library design, detection of fragment binding, and fragment to lead strategies. A review in Front. Mol. Biosci. by Qingxin Li (Guangzhou Sugarcane Industry Research Institute) goes into more detail on fragment screening, optimization, and biological targets.
For the past five years a few fragment fanciers (myself included) have been writing annual reviews in J. Med. Chem. covering fragment-to-lead success stories from the previous year, each with a handy table showing fragment, lead, and key parameters. The 2018 edition, led by yours truly (Frontier Medicines), was published at the beginning of the year, while the 2019 edition, led by Wolfgang Jahnke (Novartis), just came out a few weeks ago. At the risk of self-promotion, both are well worth perusing to see the growing diversity of targets and emerging trends, such as covalent fragments.
Biophysical methods are by far the most commonly used for finding fragments, and an excellent overview of thermal shift, SPR, and NMR by Joe Coyle and Reto Walser (Astex) appears in SLAS Discovery. The goal is “to help the anxious biophysicist withstand the relentless unforeseen,” and the paper provides loads of practical advice. For example, over more than 50 thermal shift screens, “we have never derived anything useful from negative Tm shifts.” The researchers note that “SPR is particularly user-friendly and particularly prone to artifact, overinterpretation, and varying degrees of frustration.” As for validating ligand-observed NMR hits crystallographically, rates range from 5% to 80%.
As we noted earlier this year, crystallography is becoming increasingly dominant in fragment screening, and in Molecules Laurent Maveyraud and Lionel Mourey (Université de Toulouse) provide an overview of the process, covering theory, workflow, practical aspects, pitfalls, examples, and other emerging methods. David Stuart and colleagues at Diamond Light Source discuss structural efforts on SARS-CoV-2 proteins in an open-access paper in Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun. As of late October this included more than 500 released structures of 16 different proteins. Efforts against the main protease (which I reviewed in Nat. Commun.) have led to molecules with mid-nanomolar activity, and the researchers rightly highlight the worldwide collaboration that has led to such rapid progress.
NMR is of course a biophysical technique, but there are so many papers this year that it makes sense to group them into their own section. Ray Norton (Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences) and Wolfgang Jahnke (Novartis) introduce a special issue of J. Biomol. NMR focused on “NMR in pharmaceutical discovery and development” by briefly summarizing the state of the art and introducing 13 articles, one of which we covered previously and three of which are highlighted below.
“NMR in target driven drug discovery, why not?” ask Gregg Siegal and collaborators at ZoBio and Gotham in an (open access) J. Biomol. NMR review. In addition to characterizing small molecules, proteins, and their interactions, the researchers present cases studies in which NMR data has helped clarify a crystallographic protein-ligand structure, or even suggested that the crystal structure represented at most a minor conformation in solution.
In other words, NMR is “the swiss army knife of drug discovery,” as Reto Horst and colleagues at Pfizer put it in another J. Biomol. NMR review. The researchers describe successful NMR fragment screens against difficult targets such as an ion channel and a large (145 kDa) trimeric enzyme. They also make a good case for using NMR to determine the solution conformations of small molecules early in a project, a strategy that has paid off in more than 15 Pfizer projects over the past six years.
Benjamin Diethelm-Varela (University of Maryland) focuses on using NMR for “fragment-based drug discovery of small-molecule anti-cancer targeted therapies” in ChemMedChem. This is a thorough yet accessible overview of FBDD, ligand- and protein-based NMR methods, plus ten case studies. “A practical perspective on the roles of solution NMR spectroscopy in drug discovery” is provided by Qinxin Li and CongBao Kang (A*STAR) in Molecules. As the title suggests, this review is fairly broad, and includes an interesting section on NMR screening in cells.
All these papers might have you thinking that NMR is a “Gold Standard,” and that phrase does indeed appear in the title of another Molecules review by Abdul-Hamid Emwas (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) and a multinational group of collaborators. This is a large (66 page) monograph with 455 references and is particularly detailed on various NMR techniques; if you want to see the pulse sequence of the HSQC experiment or review the Einstein-Stokes equation this is the place to turn.
In addition to the six reviews on NMR above, two specifically cover 19F NMR. The first, from the J. Biomol. NMR special issue by Claudio Dalvit (Lavis) and colleagues, focuses on fluorine NMR functional screening, or n-FABS. This paper provides an excellent theoretical and practical overview of the technique, and includes a handy table of 17 published case studies. And in Prog. Nuc. Mag. Res. Spect. Peter Howe (Syngenta) reviews “recent developments in the use of fluorine NMR in synthesis and characterization.” As the title suggests, much ground is covered, from spectrometer technology to quantum chemistry calculations, and there is a short section on fragment-based screening.
Turning to in silico techniques, Floriano Paes Silva Jr. and collaborators at LaBECFar and several other (mostly) Brazilian institutes provide an open-access overview in Front. Chem. After summarizing FBDD they describe how computational techniques can help along the way, from druggability prediction to docking, de novo design, and assessment of ADMET properties and synthetic accessibility. The review ends with several case studies.
In an open-access article in Drug Disc. Today, Stefano Moro and colleagues at University of Padova focus on “the rise of molecular simulations in fragment-based drug design.” This accessible overview covers hotspot identification, hit identification and characterization, and hit to lead optimization, and includes a nice section on free energy perturbation.
Molecular properties are critical for developing good drugs, and in J. Med. Chem. Christopher Tinworth (GlaxoSmithKline) and Robert Young (Blue Burgundy) “appraise the rule of 5 with measured physicochemical data.” This is packed full of good stuff including a supplementary table with calculated and measured data for hundreds of compounds. The summary is that molecular weight is much less important than (measured) lipophilicity and hydrogen bond donors. “Good practice is all about compromise, aiming to maximize efficacy and efficiency while navigating many potential pitfalls in molecular optimization.” People sometimes obsess over rules vs guidelines, and the researchers close by stating that “rules are for the obedience of fools and guidance of the wise.”
As a poll from several years ago suggested, fragment linking tends to be less common than fragment growing, though it can work spectacularly. In J. Med. Chem. Isabelle Krimm and colleagues mostly at Université de Lyon review 45 successful fragment linking case studies (though it would have been appropriate for them to acknowledge Practical Fragments for the clearly borrowed table of clinical compounds). While by no means exhaustive, this is a useful resource. Interestingly, only 20% of the examples display superadditivity.
Target-guided synthesis (TGS) can be thought of as a special case of fragment linking. In J. Med. Chem., Rebecca Deprez-Poulain and colleagues at Université de Lille review kinetic TGS, in which two components react irreversibly with one another in the context of a protein to form a higher-affinity binder. Kinetic TGS may have some practical advantages over reversible TGS (or dynamic combinatorial chemistry), but as the researchers note most examples start with compounds larger than fragments, and thus only 38% of examples lead to products with a molecular weight less than 500 Da. This could partly explain why only 6 of the 50 reported examples have gone into animal studies.
Finally, György Keserű and collaborators at the Hungarian Research Centre for Natural Sciences review covalent fragment-based drug discovery in Drug Discovery Today (open access). Library design and validation is well-covered, as are various methods for screening covalent fragments, and there is a handy table of some four-dozen published examples. Given the increasing popularity of covalent FBLD, this contribution should be of wide interest.
When I wrote my concluding post for 2019, COVID-19 was an obscure and nameless disease, and SARS-CoV-2 had not even been identified. I ended with, "may 2020 bring wisdom, and progress." We've gained both, though the cost has been incalculable. So I'll just close this post by thanking you for reading and commenting.