29 January 2024

Covalent fragments vs a SARS-CoV-2 helicase

Last week we wrote about the difficulties of trying to understand even well-characterized covalent inhibitors of well-characterized targets. Most projects have far less information, as illustrated in a recent paper in J. Am. Chem. Soc. by Ekaterina Vinogradova, Tarun Kapoor, and collaborators at Rockefeller University and Sanders Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute, who report the first inhibitors of a particular SARS-CoV-2 enzyme.
The researchers were interested in helicases, enzymes that unwind DNA, RNA, or both. To do so, helicases cycle between “open” and “closed” forms, with conformational changes of as much as 15 Å. That dynamism complicates structure-based drug design, and many screens have yielded false positives. An irreversible covalent inhibitor that remained bound to the enzyme through its gyrations would potentially be easier to optimize.
The protein nsp13 from SARS-CoV-2 is essential for viral replication and thus an attractive drug target. The researchers started by testing previously reported and reactive “scout fragments” in a functional assay. Compound 1 inhibited the enzyme, and mass-spectrometry (MS) assays revealed that it modified three sites on the protein. Although multiple modifications are not desirable, the enzyme does contain 26 cysteine residues, so it could be worse. Peptide mapping and mutagenesis experiments revealed that modification of cysteine 556 (C556) is responsible for the inhibitory activity of compound 1.
A series of analogs culminated in compound 3b, which had low micromolar activity after a four hour incubation and also seemed more selective than compound 1, with less modification of other cysteine residues. The enantiomer of compound 3b was at least 6-fold less potent, suggesting molecular recognition rather than simple reactivity. In addition to nsp13, the researchers examined two mammalian helicases with disease relevance, WRN and BLM, and found that compound 3b was modestly selective for nsp13. (The researchers find different inhibitors for these two enzymes, though these are weaker and not as extensively characterized as those for nsp13.)

Cysteine 556 is not in the ATP-binding site and does not seem to be involved with RNA binding, and the researchers suggest that compound 3b may act allosterically. It seems to be highly conserved too, which might mean mutational resistance is less likely to evolve.
As the researchers acknowledge, compound 3b contains a chloroacetamide warhead, which is likely too reactive and unstable to move forward into in vivo studies, let alone the clinic. Also, had I reviewed the manuscript I would have requested the researchers to provide kinact/KI values rather than merely IC50 values; a rough calculation using the methodology in this paper suggests a modest 10 M-1s-1 for compound 3b. That said, the discovery that liganding C556 inhibits nsp13 means that working to develop more potent and selective molecules may be worth the effort.

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