BARDA Bets on Boron to Bust Bacteria

GlaxoSmithKline recently announced a contract with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a US government preparedness organization (Note: it’s not often pharma-relevant press releases come from the Public Health Emergency website!). The award guarantees GSK $38.5 million over 2 years towards development of GSK2251052, a molecule co-developed with Anacor Pharma a few years back, as a counter-bioterrorism agent. The full funding amount may later increase to $94 million, pending BARDA’s future option.

The goal here is to develop “GSK ‘052”, as it’s nicknamed among med-chemists, into a new antibiotic against especially vicious and virulent Gram negative bacteria, such as the classic foes plague (Yersinia pestis) or anthrax (Bacillus anthracis).

So what’s so special about this molecule? Usually, med-chemists “color” with the same atomic “crayons”: some carbon, sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen, with a few halogens or transition metals every now and then (luckily, the golden age of mercury and arsenic therapies has largely passed on!). But seeing boron ensconced in a lead molecule rings alarm bells . . . you don’t usually see boron in pharmaceutical scaffolds!

Look closely at GSK’052 (shown above): that’s a boron heterocycle there! Anacor, a company specializing in boron based lead compounds, first partnered with GSK in 2007 to develop novel benzoxaborole scaffolds. This isn’t the first company to try the boron approach to target proteins; Myogenics (which, after several acquisitions, became Millennium Pharma) first synthesized bortezomib, a boronic acid peptide, in 1995.

Stephen Benkovic (a former Anacor scientific board member) and coworkers at Penn State first discovered Anacor’s early boron lead molecules in 2001, with a screening assay. The molecules bust bacteria by inhibiting  leucyl-tRNA synthetase, an enzyme that helps bacterial cells to correctly tag tRNA with the amino acid leucine. Compounds with cyclic boronic acids “stick” to one end of the tRNA, rendering the tRNA unable to cycle through the enzyme’s editing domain. As a result, mislabeled tRNAs pile up, eventually killing the bacterial cell.

Inhibition of synthetase function turns out to be a useful mechanism to conquer all sorts of diseases.  Similar benzoxaborozoles to GSK ‘052 show activity against sleeping sickness (see Trypanosoma post by fellow Haystack contributor Aaron Rowe), malaria, and various fungi.

Author: See Arr Oh

See Arr Oh is a Ph.D. chemist working in industry

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1 Comment

  1. Great molecule and great news for the public. It is a shame and quite ironic that GSK is awarded a multimillion dollar contract to develop GSK ’052 and at the same time fire 50% of its antibiotic discovery unit. This happened in March of this year. Begs the question as to whether the company is really committed to antibiotic drug discovery.


  1. Trouble With a Boron-Containing Drug Candidate | Healthcare - [...] to change that in antibacterials, with the development of what’s commonly referred to as “GSK ’052″, short for GSK2251052. …