The ideal shape of compounds used for biological screens is a subject of vigorous debate, with some arguing that shapely molecules may be superior in various ways to the “flatter” aromatic compounds that tend to dominate libraries. This view was expressed more than a decade ago in the paper, “Escape from Flatland: Increasing Saturation as an Approach to Improving Clinical Success.” However, those conclusions have been challenged. Since many of us are trying to discover drugs, it is worth asking what actual drugs look like. This is the subject of a new ACS Med. Chem. Lett. paper by Seth Cohen and colleagues at University of California, San Diego.
Assessing shapeliness is itself contentious. Here the researchers chose the intuitive metric, principal moment of inertia (PMI), which uses a simple triangle plot to assess whether a molecule is more rod-like, disk-like, or sphere-like. The degree of shapeliness (3D Score) can be calculated by summing the x- and y-coordinates to give values between 1 (rod- or disk-like) and 2 (sphere-like).
The researchers first extracted more than 8500 drugs and nutraceuticals from DrugBank, all of which had associated three-dimensional structures and MW >100. PMI calculations revealed that nearly 80% were linear or planar, with 3D Scores < 1.2. Another 17.5% had 3D Scores up to 1.4, while only 0.5% were greater than 1.6. Interestingly, this distribution is similar to that of the ZINC database of small molecules. You might expect a correlation between size and shapeliness, with larger molecules being more three-dimensional, but this was not the case. Perhaps related, a separate analysis found no correlation between shapeliness of fragments and resulting leads.
The 3D structures of compounds in DrugBank are calculated for energy-minimized conformations, which are not necessarily the biologically relevant conformations. So the researchers next went to the protein data bank (PDB) and its crystal structures of 502 unique DrugBank molecules bound to various proteins. Some molecules were represented multiple times (1036 structures of sapropterin!), and for these the PMIs were averaged. The results of this analysis were similar, with 83.5% of molecules having a 3D Score < 1.2 and just three molecules with a 3D Score > 1.6. As with the DrugBank data, there was no correlation between 3D Score and molecular weight.
Further analyses of compounds with multiple crystallographic structures was interesting. For diclofenac, with 51 PDB entries, 3D Scores ranged from 1.03 to 1.52, with the minimized score being 1.22. However, some of these structures are likely low affinity with questionable biological relevance. In contrast, for five approved HIV drugs, the PMIs remained very similar for molecules bound in the active sites.
Getting out of flatland is surprisingly difficult: the researchers examined the PMIs for several fragments from libraries designed to have shapely members and found that none had 3D Scores > 1.4. They suggest clever ways of increasing three dimensionality, such as building organometallic molecules. While this is likely to increase novelty and patentability, it also introduces unknown biological risks. One analysis that would be interesting is whether natural-product-derived drugs are significantly shapelier than their purely synthetic counterparts.
The researchers conclude:
The true need for topological diversity in feedstocks and final drug molecules remains unclear given the overwhelming number of linear and planar drugs. The question remains as to whether more 3D compounds represent attractive and untapped therapeutic space, or if more linear/planar molecules are indeed the best topologies for bioactive molecules.
This is indeed an interesting question, and I hope that chemists – particularly those in academia – continue to make and test ever more exotic molecules. But since the first word of this blog is “Practical,” I would not discount the more planar molecules that make up most of our pharmacopoeia.