17 January 2022

An epidemic of aggregators, and suggestions for cures

COVID-19 has been with us for over two years now. While the human effects have been unquestionably negative, for science it has been the best of times and the worst of times. The development of remarkably effective vaccines in less than a year stands as a triumph of twenty-first century medicine, as does the discovery of nirmatrelvir, a covalent inhibitor of the SARS-CoV-2 main protease Mpro (also called 3CL-Pro). But there is a lot of junk-science out there too, as illuminated in a recent J. Med. Chem. paper by Brian Shoichet and colleagues at University of California San Francisco.
Before vaccines and custom-built drugs were developed, labs everywhere started screening all the compounds they could get against targets relevant for COVID-19. The most popular molecules to test were approved drugs, the idea being that if any of these turned out to be effective they could immediately be put to use.
One of the most common artifacts in screening is caused by aggregation: small molecules can form colloids that non-specifically inhibit a variety of different assays. This phenomenon has been understood for more than two decades; Practical Fragments wrote about it back in 2009. Unfortunately, many labs ignore it.
The UCSF lab investigated 56 drugs that had been reported in 12 papers as inhibitors against two targets relevant for SARS-CoV-2, including 3CL-Pro. The molecules were characterized in multiple assays: particle formation and clean autocorrelation curves in dynamic light scattering (DLS), inhibition of an aggregation-sensitive enzyme in the absence of detergent but no inhibition in the presence of detergent, and a high Hill slope in the dose-response curve. Nineteen molecules, four of them fragment-sized, were positive in most of these assays, clearly indicating aggregation. (Interestingly, several of these gave reasonable Hill slopes (<1.4), and the researchers suggest this be a “soft criterion.”) Another 14 molecules gave more ambiguous results, such as forming particles by DLS but not inhibiting the sentinel enzyme.
OK, so maybe the molecules are aggregators, but perhaps they also act legitimately? Unfortunately, of the 12 drugs reported in the literature to inhibit 3CL-Pro, only two inhibited the enzyme in the presence of detergent, and one of these was five-fold less potent than reported. And as the researchers point out, detergent is not a magic elixir, and sometimes only right-shifts the onset of aggregation. Moreover, of the 19 molecules conclusively found to be aggregators, detergent was not included for 15 of them in the original publications. Brian may be too polite to write this, but channeling my inner Teddy, I would argue that the authors are negligent for failing to test for aggregation, as are the editors and reviewers who allowed these papers to be published.
And the problem is not confined to the COVID-19 literature. The researchers examined a commercial library of 2336 FDA-approved drugs, 73 of which are known aggregators. Another 356 were flagged in the very useful Aggregation Advisor tool (see here), and 6 of 15 experimentally evaluated tested positive in all the aggregation assays.
How do you avoid being misled by these artifacts? An extensive suite of tools for assessing aggregation is provided in a recent Nat. Protoc. paper by Steven LaPlante and colleagues at Université du Québec and NMX. The procedures are described in sufficient detail that they “can be easily performed by graduate students and even undergraduate students.”
Most of the focus is on various NMR techniques, such as one we wrote about here. The easiest is an NMR dilution assay, in which a 20 mM solution of a compound in DMSO is serially diluted into aqueous buffer at concentrations from 200 to 12 µM. If the number, shape, shift, or intensities of the NMR resonances changes, aggregation is likely.
Another assay involves testing compounds in the absence and presence of various detergents, including NP40, Triton, SDS, CHAPS, Tween 20, and Tween 80. Again, changes in the NMR spectra suggest aggregation.
The researchers note that “no one technique can detect all the types of aggregates that exist; thus, a combination of strategies is necessary.” Indeed, the various techniques can distinguish different types of aggregates which can vary in size and polydispersity. On a lemons-to-lemonade note, these “nano-entities” might even be useful for “drug delivery, anti-aggregates, cell penetrators and bioavailability enhancers.”
We live in the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness. As scientists – and as people – it is our responsibility to aspire to the former by being aware of “unknown knowns,” such as aggregation. And perhaps, by even taking advantage of the weird phenomena that can occur with small molecules in water.

10 January 2022

Virtually screening 11 billion compounds – no problem!

Three years ago we highlighted virtual screens of roughly 100 million molecules which led to numerous high-affinity ligands against two targets. Those efforts made use of the Enamine “readily available for synthesis” (REAL) library, a virtual catalog of molecules that can be rapidly made and delivered. Enamine is continuing to grow this resource, which as of last year stood at 11 billion compounds. This is an impressive number, but how do you make use of it? In a just-published paper in Nature, Vsevolod Katritch (University of Southern California, Los Angeles) and a large group of collaborators provide a promising fragment-based solution.
Molecules in the Enamine REAL collection can be made using one-pot parallel synthesis from two or three reagents; for example, an amide could be made from an amine and a carboxylic acid. Enamine built a set of 75,000 reagents and 121 different reactions which collectively could produce 11 billion molecules (it’s even larger now). However, docking all of these could take thousands of years on a single CPU or cost hundreds of thousands of dollars on a computing cloud.
Rather than docking all the Enamine REAL compounds, the researchers developed an approach called virtual synthon hierarchical enumeration screening, or V-SYNTHES. The first step is to create a library of scaffolds with molecular weights in the 250-350 Da range. Taking the amide example above, imagine linking a set of 1000 amines to benzoic acid and a set of 1000 carboxylic acids to methylamine. This 2000 compound minimal enumeration library, or MEL, could be considered a subset of the full 1000 x 1000 = 1,000,000 virtual amide library. The numbers are even more dramatic for a three-component reaction: a MEL of just 1500 compounds could represent 125,000,000 fully elaborated molecules.
The MEL is docked against a protein of interest, and a diverse set of the top-scoring compounds chosen for fragment growing. In our example, the benzoic acid “cap” on the best compounds would be replaced by the full set of 1000 carboxylic acids. These would then be virtually screened, and the top compounds synthesized and tested.
The researchers applied V-SYNTHES to two targets. The first was a cannabinoid receptor bound to an antagonist. A total of 1.5 million molecules were docked against CB2, representing 11 billion fully enumerated compounds. After filtering the best hits to remove PAINS and molecules similar to known CB2 ligands, 80 diverse compounds were chosen for actual synthesis and testing, of which Enamine was able to deliver 60 in less than 5 weeks. One-third of these turned out to be antagonists with Ki values < 10 µM in biological assays.
How does this compare to a brute-force approach? Screening all 11 billion molecules wasn’t feasible, so the researchers screened a representative subset of the Enamine REAL library consisting of 115 million molecules – two orders of magnitude larger than the libraries screened in V-SYNTHES. Of 97 compounds synthesized and tested, only 5 turned out to be antagonists of CB2 with Ki values < 10 µM.
A nice feature of V-SYNTHES is that it is well-suited to SAR-by-catalog. This was demonstrated by looking for analogs of the three best hits within Enamine REAL space. Of 104 compounds synthesized and tested, more than half had Ki values < 10 µM, and 23 were submicromolar antagonists. In fact, several turned out to be low nanomolar and selective not just against the related CB1 receptor but against a panel of 300 other GPCRs.
V-SYNTHES was also applied to the kinase ROCK1 and achieved similarly impressive results: six of 21 compounds synthesized and tested had Kd < 10 µM in a binding assay, and one was a low nanomolar inhibitor.
This is a lovely and practical application of fragment concepts. Importantly, because the computational cost only increases linearly with the number of synthetic components while the library size increases with the square (for two-component molecules), it is very scalable; the researchers suggest that “terascale and petascale libraries” should be “easily” accommodated. These are numbers beyond even what DNA-encoded libraries can promise.
Currently V-SYNTHES relies on a good structural model for docking, but as computational predictions of protein structures become ever more accurate, perhaps even this will cease to be a limitation. Our SkyFragNet post from 2019 is looking ever more prophetic, in a good way.

05 January 2022

Fragment events in 2022

Will 2022 mark the full return of in-person conferences? That's the plan - here's hoping SARS-CoV-2 doesn't interfere.

February 5-9: The  SLAS2022 International Conference and Exhibition will be held in Boston, so if you're looking for new instrumentation this is the place to be.

March 20-24: The American Chemical Society will hold its Spring National Meeting both in-person and virtually in San Diego. There are bound to be fragment talks, including a session on Modern Screening Methods on March 24.

March 27-29: The Royal Society of Chemistry's Fragments 2022 will be held in the original Cambridge, and also virtually. This is the eighth in an esteemed conference series that historically has alternated years with the FBLD meetings. You can read my impressions of Fragments 2013 and Fragments 2009.
April 19-20: CHI’s Seventeenth Annual Fragment-Based Drug Discovery, the longest-running fragment event, returns in-person to sunny San Diego (and will also be online). This is part of the larger Drug Discovery Chemistry meeting. You can read impressions of the 2021 virtual meeting here, the 2020 virtual meeting here, the 2019 meeting here, the 2018 meeting here, the 2017 meeting here, the 2016 meeting here; the 2015 meeting herehere, and here; the 2014 meeting here and here; the 2013 meeting here and here; the 2012 meeting here; the 2011 meeting here; and 2010 here

May 9-11:  While not exclusively fragment-focused, the Eighth NovAliX Conference on Biophysics in Drug Discovery will have several relevant talks, and for the first time will use a hybrid model, both online and in Munich, Germany. You can read my impressions of the 2018 Boston event here, the 2017 Strasbourg event here, and Teddy's impressions of the 2013 event herehere, and here.
October 17-20: CHI’s Twentieth Annual Discovery on Target will be held both virtually and in Boston, as it was last year. As the name implies this event is more target-focused than chemistry-focused, but there are always plenty of FBDD-related talks. You can read my impressions of the 2020 virtual event here, the 2019 event here, and the 2018 event here.
Know of anything else? Please leave a comment or drop me a note!