30 December 2021

Review of 2021 reviews

As the year winds down SARS-CoV-2 continues its relentless drive through Greek letters and the planet. But there is hope: vaccines seem to be holding, for those who have access, and two oral drugs have been granted emergency use authorization by the US FDA, one of which (PF-07321332) is covalent and looks remarkably effective. As is our custom, Practical Fragments ends the year by highlighting conferences and reviews.
Conferences started the year online only (CHI’s Sixteenth Annual Fragment-based Drug Discovery), moved to hybrid (CHI’s Nineteenth Annual Discovery on Target) and sadly returned to virtual (Pacifichem 2021).
This year produced more than twenty FBLD-related reviews, and these are grouped thematically: NMR and crystallography, computational methods, targets, library design, and covalent fragments. The most general is the sixth installment in a series of annual reviews in J. Med. Chem. covering fragment-to-lead success stories from the previous year. Iwan de Esch (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) took the lead (pardon the pun) on the most recent review, which details 21 examples from 2020. In addition to the centerpiece table showing fragment, lead, and key parameters, this open-access paper also includes an analysis on the molecular complexity of fragment hits.
NMR and crystallography
Consistent with its central role in FBLD, several reviews covered NMR. Ben Davis (Vernalis), one of the leading practitioners, discusses fragment screening in Methods Mol. Biol. The chapter is written for a non-specialist, so you won’t see detailed pulse sequences. Instead, Ben provides a very accessible and practical guide covering everything from sample preparation through data analysis and validation.
A more detailed description of solution NMR in drug discovery by Li Shi and Naixia Zhang (Shanghai Institute of Materia and Medica) is published (open access) in Molecules. With 180 references, this review covers considerable ground, including various ligand-detected and protein-detected methods for screening as well as for hit-to-lead and mechanistic studies. The paper also includes a nice summary of in-cell (!) NMR.
The Pacifichem meeting had several talks on fluorine NMR, and speaker Will Pomerantz, together with Caroline Buchholz, has published a thorough, open-access review in RSC Chem. Biol. Will has been a leading developer of protein-observed 19F NMR, so naturally this topic is well-covered, but there is plenty on ligand-observed 19F NMR as well as a good background section and musings on the future of the field.
And if you’re looking for a detailed how-to guide for NMR-based fragment screening, Harald Schwalbe and colleagues describe the platform they’ve built at the Center for Biomolecular Magnetic Resonance (BMRZ) at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University Frankfurt in J. Vis. Exp. This open-access paper also describes quality control experiments of the iNEXT library, which we’ve discussed here.
Switching gears to crystallography, J. Vis. Exp. carries a paper by Frank von Delft and collaborators describing the XChem platform at the Diamond Light Source. This high-throughput fragment screening platform has delivered a 95% success rate on more than 150 screens, with hit rates varying from 1-30%. In addition to technical details, this open-access article also provides tips on successfully getting your screening proposal through peer review.
XChem has inspired similar efforts at other synchrotrons, including the Fast Fragment and Compound Screening (FFCS) platform at the Swiss Light Source. This is concisely described by May Sharpe and Justyna Wojdyla in Nihon Kessho Gakkaishi (open-access and published in English).
Private companies are also moving into high-throughput crystallography. Debanu Das and collaborators describe the platform at Accelero Biostructures, which is capable of screening ~500 fragments in two days. Screens against three nucleases are described in some detail in an open-access article in Prog. Biophys. Mol. Biol.; these and other components of the DNA damage response are the focus of XPose Therapeutics, Accelero’s sister company.
Computational methods
In addition to the experimental methods reviewed above, a couple papers describe computational approaches. In Drug Disc. Today: Tech., FragNet alum Moira Rachman and collaborators from UCSF, Universitat de Barcelona, and elsewhere focus on “fragment-to-lead tailored in silico design.” This is a nice review of the recent literature and emphasizes the fact that much of the heavy design lifting is still done by medicinal chemists – at least for now.
Predicting the energies of modified fragments has long been a challenge, and one promising approach is free energy perturbation, in which one ligand is “perturbed” into another and the relative energy differences calculated. Barbara Zarzycka and colleagues at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam provide a concise review for aficionados in Drug Disc. Today: Tech.
Three reviews cover applications of FBLD to various target classes. Kinases have been particularly successful, with four of the six approved fragment-derived drugs targeting these enzymes. In Trends Pharm. Sci., Ge-Fei Hao and collaborators, mostly at Central China Normal University, review the state of the art. In addition to background and several case studies, the paper includes a nice table showing structures and summaries of clinical-stage kinase inhibitors.
Epigenetics has been another fruitful area, and in J. Med. Chem. Miguel Vaidergorn, Flavio da Silva Emery (both University of São Paulo) and Ganesan (University of East Anglia) detail the “successful union of epigenetic and fragment based drug discovery (EPIDD + FBDD).” This thorough summary (with 165 structures!) of the literature is particularly detailed when it comes to bromodomains, four inhibitors of which have entered the clinic with the help of fragments. The researchers point out that EPIDD and FBDD both began around the same time, and in fact the oncology drug vorinostat could be described as “a unique case of solvent-based drug discovery.”
RNA has long been a target of FBLD, and in ChemMedChem Mads Clausen (Technical University of Denmark) and collaborators review the state of the art. The various established and emerging methods to find fragment hits are covered in depth, and there is also a nice discussion as to whether RNA-focused fragment libraries will be useful.
Library design and molecular properties
In Expert Opin. Drug Discov. Zenon Konteatis (Agios) asks “what makes a good fragment in fragment-based drug discovery?” His answers provide a concise summary touching on the rule of three, molecular complexity, “three-dimensionality”, and other topics.
The topic of three-dimensional fragments is covered in several other reviews. In Drug Disc. Today: Tech., Iwan de Esch and collaborators at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and University of York assess 25 so-called 3D libraries reported in the literature, mostly since 2015. The researchers manually drew all 897 fragments so they could calculate various properties. While most of the molecules are rule-of-three compliant, just under half could be called 3D by both plane of best fit (PBF) and principal moment of inertia (PMI). PBF and PMI measurements correlated with one another, while Fsp3 correlated with neither measurement, leading to the conclusion that “Fsp3 is a poor measure of 3D shape.”
Shapely or not, sp3-rich fragments are interesting from a diversity point of view, and in Chem. Sci. Max Caplin and Dan Foley (University of Canterbury) discuss synthetic methods for advancing these. This is an excellent open-access review of the recent literature around C-H bond functionalization and well worth reading for the chemists in the audience.
3D fragments are often chiral, and the importance of chirality in drug discovery is the focus of a paper in ACS Med. Chem. Lett. by Ilaria Silvestri and Paul Colbon (University of Liverpool). The researchers note an opportunity for chemical suppliers: only 245 of 9751 heterocyclic building blocks offered by Sigma-Aldrich are chirally pure.
“Library design strategies to accelerate fragment-based drug discovery” is the topic of a Chem. Eur. J. review by Nikolaj Troelsen and Mads Clausen (Technical University of Denmark). The researchers provide a highly accessible overview of different libraries appropriate for different fragment-finding methods, including covalent approaches.
Covalent fragments
This year saw the approval of sotorasib, the first covalent fragment-derived drug, so it is no surprise that several papers focus on this topic. Sara Buhrlage, Jarrod Marto, and colleagues at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute provide a thorough introduction to “chemoproteomic methods for covalent drug discovery” in Chem. Soc. Rev. The review covers both isolated protein screening as well as proteome-wide methods and includes multiple case studies.
Nir London and colleagues at The Weizmann Institute of Science focus on “covalent fragment screening” in Ann. Rep. Med. Chem. This is an excellent review of the recent literature and also includes an analysis of six commercial covalent fragment libraries.
And finally, in RSC Chem. Biol. (open access), Nathanael Gray and collaborators mostly at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute discuss strategies for “fragment-based covalent ligand discovery”, including computer-aided approaches, as well as target classes and new modalities such as PROTACs. They end by asking whether sotorasib was “a lucky, one-off case” or “a preview of continued and increased impacts that these approaches will have on drug discovery as the improved methods, larger libraries, and increased focus start to bear fruit.”
I’m betting on the latter.
And that’s it for 2021. Thanks for reading, special thanks for commenting, and here’s hoping we’ll be able to meet in person in 2022.

22 December 2021

Pacifichem 2021

Pacifichem, the last significant conference of 2021, has just ended. Traditionally held every five years, these meetings usually bring thousands of visitors from Pacific Rim countries to Honolulu. They are planned years in advance: symposia proposals were due in early 2018. Pacifichem 2015 saw the first symposium dedicated to FBLD, and that was so popular that a few of us planned one for 2020. The conference organizers decided to postpone the 2020 meeting in the hope that we could all meet in person. But SARS-CoV-2 had other plans, and instead of meeting in Hawaii we met on Zoom.
Time zones were challenging. Four-hour sessions started in the morning or evening Hawaiian time, which translated to 02:00 in Shanghai or 23:00 in Boston, respectively. In contrast to other virtual meetings almost all the presentations were live and not recorded, which meant that you only had one chance to see a talk.
Despite these challenges and universal Zoom-fatigue, the event came off quite well. With more than two dozen presentations I won’t attempt to cover everything but will instead just touch on a few themes.
Quite a few talks focused on methods, with NMR being especially well-represented. The symposium started with Will Pomerantz (University of Minnesota) discussing Protein-Observed Fluorine (PrOF) NMR, in which fluorinated amino acids are introduced into proteins. We’ve written about this previously, including Will’s longstanding interest in assessing shapely fragments. After reading about Mads Clausen’s fluorinated Fsp3-rich library, Will established a collaboration and has found 8 hits from 79 fragments screened against BET bromodomain proteins. He has also been able to optimize potent leads selective for either the BD1 or BD2 domains of BRD4.
Scott Prosser (University of Toronto) is also using NMR to study fluorine-labeled proteins, in this case GPCRs. And Michael Overduin (University of Alberta), one of the symposium organizers, is also studying membrane-bound proteins using NMR techniques.
On the extreme side of spectrometers, Chojiro Kojima described the 950 MHz NMR at Osaka University. This enables a 1H-13C HSQC experiment on protein as dilute as 0.2 micromolar, which could be valuable for insoluble or hard-to-purify proteins. The facility is open to international collaborators. Chojiro also described isotopically labeling proteins with transglutaminase and 1H{19F} STD NMR, which works even when the fluorine peak itself is broadened to invisibility.
But you don’t need a big magnet to do good science. Brian Stockman’s group at Adelphi University is composed entirely of undergraduates who use substrate-detected NMR to follow enzymatic reactions to find inhibitors of neglected parasitic infections.
All techniques can give false positives, and NMR can be very effective at weeding these out. As we described two years ago Steven LaPlante (NMX) has been developing methods to rapidly identify aggregators and has been assembling something of a taxonomy; more later.
But the conference was not all NMR all the time. Rebecca Whitehouse (Monash University) described a 91-compound “MicroFrag” library consisting of fragments containing 5-8 atoms, “somewhere in the land between solvents and fragments.” NMR and crystallographic screens of the difficult antimicrobial target DsbA gave very high hit rates, and both techniques successfully identified the large but shallow substrate-binding groove. In contrast, screening actual solvents or using the well-established FTMap computational approach did not clearly identify this groove.
The push in crystallography is towards increased speed, and Debanu Das described the high-throughput platform at Acclero BioStructures, which is capable of screening 1000 fragments per week, similar to XChem. But if even that is too slow for you, Marius Schmidt (University of Wisconsin-Madison) described mix-and-inject experiments using the European X-ray free-electron laser (XFEL). Much of the focus with this technique has been on high-speed enzymology, but since 100 datasets can be collected in 10 hours it can be used for high-throughput crystallographic screening too. An upgrade next year will increase this to 1000 datasets in 3 hours, though the resulting petabytes of data will no doubt create headaches for IT departments.
It’s not enough to find hits, you need to figure out what to do with them, and symposium organizer Martin Scanlon (Monash University) discussed a computational approach (GRADe, similar to Fragment Network) as well as the experimental (REFiL) approach we’ve discussed previously. Across 9 projects the techniques were successful at improving affinity, in some cases from unmeasurable levels.
Covalent Fragments
Several talks focused on covalent FBLD. Alexander Statsyuk (University of Houston) proposed five rules for covalent fragments: 1) ease of synthesis; 2) non-promiscuous electrophiles; 3) intrinsic reactivity should be the same within the library; 4) a given library should use the same electrophile; and 5) the electrophile should be on the end of the molecule with a minimal linker connecting it to the variable fragment. Some of these make sense, but it would have been fun to debate others over Mai Tais.
Dan Nomura (UC Berkeley) described using covalent fragments in chemoproteomic experiments, where he has identified more than 100,000 potentially ligandable hotspots in more than 16,000 human proteins. Among other applications, this allows him to make bifunctional molecules to bring two proteins together. A clear application is PROTACs, where the electrophilic fragment targets an E3 ligase, but he also described targeting the deubiquitinase OTUB1 to stabilize proteins.
Earlier this year we celebrated the approval of the KRASG12C inhibitor sotorasib. This target had long resisted drug discovery efforts; Ratmir Derda (University of Alberta) evocatively mentioned “waves and waves of medicinal chemists washing off its shore for 30 years.” Success was finally enabled using disulfide Tethering, and David Turner (Frederick National Laboratory) is now using this approach to interrogate nearly every surface-exposed residue by systematically mutating them to cysteines and screening against more than 1000 disulfide-containing fragments. He is well over half-way through the 85 mutants, and the resulting dataset should be valuable not just for drug discovery but for understanding molecular interactions.
Success Stories
With more than 50 drugs in the clinic derived from fragments, there were several success stories. Masakazu Atobe (Asahi Kasei) presented the discovery of the potent PKCζ inhibitors we wrote about here. And Chaohong Sun (AbbVie) described inhibitors of TNFα (see here), emphasizing the importance of robust biophysics and early committed chemistry.
Finally, Emiliano Tamanini (Astex) presented a nice fragment-to-lead effort to find a selective inhibitor of HDAC2. Despite some successes, histone deacetylase inhibitors tend to be non-specific and come with side effects. Emiliano described a fragment screen that identified a new metal chelator and used fragment merging to develop a molecule capable of crossing the blood-brain-barrier.
These last two stories in particular are examples of pursuing difficult targets, another theme throughout the conference. When asked about the challenges of targeting cancer-resistance-causing glucuronosyltransferases, Katherine Borden (University of Montreal) responded, “if you don’t try, where will you be?”
Bright words for these darkling days.

13 December 2021

Fragments vs AXL, with help from an ELF

The receptor tyrosine kinase AXL has been implicated in multiple cancers, and more recently as a possible target for COVID-19. The protein has been pursued by many groups, mostly starting from high-throughput screens or existing inhibitors. In a recent Bioorg. Med. Chem. paper Pearly Ng, Alvin Hung, and collaborators at Experimental Drug Development Centre Singapore, University of Sussex, and LigatureTX describe a fragment-based approach.
The researchers started with a biochemical screen of 1700 fragments at 500 µM. Subsequent dose-response experiments yielded 16 fragment hits with IC50 < 400 µM, all of which are shown in the paper. Four of these were based on 7-azaindole, a kinase hinge-binding motif that has previously been used in AXL inhibitors.
Seeking novelty, the researchers focused on the remaining 12 fragments and turned to their “expanded library of fragments (ELF),” which they have been building for several years. Though not described in depth, this collection was designed such that near-neighbors of their primary library could be rapidly screened to establish SAR and identify productive growth vectors. Compound 11, an indazole, led to several analogs from the ELF such as compound 24. This was docked into a publicly available crystal structure of AXL, and structure-based design led to compound 32. Further optimization ultimately led to molecules such as compound 52, the most potent in the paper.

Although compounds in this series were potent in the biochemical assay, they were typically 100-1000 less potent in a cell-based NanoBRET target-engagement assay, an annoying but not uncommon phenomenon. Several of the compounds showed high nanomolar activity in an ovarian cancer cell line with AXL overexpression. Interestingly, two compounds showed considerably more potent antiproliferative activity than target-engagement, and the researchers speculate they may be hitting other kinases. In support of this hypothesis, the researchers found that one of their compounds inhibited 12 of 97 kinases by >90% at 1 µM. This is not surprising given that indazoles are privileged fragments for kinases. Mouse pharmacokinetic studies revealed poor oral exposure for most of the compounds, though this could be improved by decreasing the basicity of the molecules.
A nice aspect of this paper is that most of the work was done without the benefit of structural information. Crystallography attempts with AXL and any of the ligands were unsuccessful, though the researchers were eventually able to obtain a structure of one of their more potent molecules bound to a related kinase. And just in time for the holidays, the paper also illustrates the utility of having an ELF on your shelf.

06 December 2021

Merging fat fragments for fat mass obesity-associated protein

Despite its name, fat mass obesity-associated protein (FTO) is implicated not just in obesity but also cancer and neurological disorders. The DNA/RNA demethylase is an “epigenetic eraser” that removes methyl groups from nucleic acids, thereby regulating multiple genes. Several inhibitors have been reported, but many of these are weak and nonspecific. In a recent J. Med. Chem. paper, Takayoshi Suzuki and collaborators at Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine, Osaka University, and Kyoto University describe merging two of these to create a more potent molecule.
The researchers started with four known inhibitors, all of which had structures bound to FTO deposited in the Protein Data Bank. These structures were then used to merge HZ (below in red) with the other (sometimes barely) fragment-sized molecules. For two approaches the resulting merged molecules were inactive, but when HZ was merged with MA (below in blue) the resulting molecule was active in a biochemical assay and showed high affinity as assessed by isothermal titration calorimetry (ITC).

Modeling studies on compound 11b suggested why it might have better affinity than the starting molecules. Additional modeling also suggested why the other merged molecules were inactive.
Given its highly polar nature compound 11b was inactive in cells, but transforming the carboxylic acid into an ester produced a prodrug that caused cell death in a cancer cell line in which FTO is overexpressed. The prodrug also caused an increase in N6-methyladenosine in mRNA and caused changes in transcription consistent with FTO inhibition. Although the potency is too low for a chemical probe, and the molecule contains a number of chemical liabilities, this on-target activity is encouraging.
This paper exemplifies that fragment merging is not necessarily easy, and I give plaudits to the researchers for describing designs that did not work – too often papers only trumpet successes. Moreover, as the researchers acknowledge, even the successfully merged compound has a lower ligand efficiency than the parent compounds. This is another illustration of why it is important to start with the best fragments possible – not just in terms of various metrics but in terms of overall chemical attractiveness as well. It will be fun to see follow-up work.