Francis Collins At TEDMED – Repurposing Drugs, Replacing Animal Models, Rocking Out
Apr11

Francis Collins At TEDMED – Repurposing Drugs, Replacing Animal Models, Rocking Out

You know you’re at an interesting conference when the director of the NIH starts off his presentation with a guitar duet, and shares a session with Cookie Monster. But the organizers of TEDMED made a very deliberate decision in opening this year’s conference with Francis Collins. This is the first year that the gathering of medical luminaries, artists, and design gurus (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is taking place in Washington, DC, after moving from San Diego. It marks a philosophical shift for the organization, from TEDMED as idea incubator to TEDMED as inserting itself into the national conversation on health and medicine. What better way to do that then bringing in the head of the biggest biomedical funding agency? Collins wants to compress the time it takes to get a drug development pipeline, and make the pipeline less leaky. This isn’t news to folks around the pharma blogosphere, including here at the Haystack, Ash at Curious Wavefunction and Derek Lowe, who’ve followed last year’s announcement of NIH’s venture for drug discovery, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Folks have expressed some concerns about the concept, and its emphasis on the promise of gene-based drug discovery. But, as Derek noted, the fact of the matter is that everyone in drug discovery wants the things Collins wants, so there’s a measure of goodwill for the venture too. Collins spent his time on the TEDMED stage emphasizing two things: drug repurposing and developing high-tech cellular solutions to supplement and replace often-imperfect animal models. On the tech side, Collins showcased the Harvard-based Wyss Institute’s lung-on-a-chip, which combines tissue engineering and electronics to mimic the interface between the lung’s air sacs and capillaries (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1188302). He said that technologies like this suggest viable alternatives to animal testing are possible. When New Scientist reported on the lung-on-a-chip in 2010, researchers praised it as a step in the right direction, but cautioned that immortalized cell lines, such as those on the chip, don’t neccesarily behave like primary cells from patients. Collins also noted that it might be possible to use such devices with patients’ own cells someday. On the repurposing side, Collins cited an article on the topic in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery (DOI: 10.1038/nrd3473), and alluded to lonafarnib (SCH 66336), a farnesyltransferase inhibitor that was originally designed to be part of cancer-treatment cocktails. It didn’t pan out as a cancer drug, Collins said, but now clinical trials are underway to test whether the drug is effective at countering a rare mutation that causes Hutchinson-Guilford progeria, an ailment that leads to rapid aging in children. Collins shared the stage with 15-year-old Sam,...

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Antibacterial Resistance – Learning Bacterial Tricks
Mar23

Antibacterial Resistance – Learning Bacterial Tricks

Virulent bacteria are growing increasingly resilient against our best antibiotics. Each day seems to bring a new story: MRSA outbreaks, resistant salmonella, or tough-to-treat tuberculosis. Just last week, World Health Organization director-general Dr. Margaret Chan delivered an address in Copenhagen, where she cautioned: “We are losing our first-line antimicrobials . . . in terms of replacement antibiotics, the pipeline is virtually dry. The cupboard is nearly bare.” (Click here for The Haystack’s past coverage of the development of new antibacterials). Why have our drugs stopped working? Recent research from St. Jude’s (Science, 2012, 1110) attempted to answer that question. Using X-ray crystallography, a technique used to see structures at the atomic level, the researchers were able to capture a critical moment when a drug binds to DHPS, its bacterial enzyme target. The scientists could then predict how bacteria evolve to dodge further biocidal bullets. The antibacterial medicines caught in the act by the St. Jude’s researchers are the sulfa drugs (see right), former front-line treatments many doctors push to the bottom of treatment regimens, due to increasingly resistant bacterial strains. Researchers knew resistance had something to do with the drugs’ mechanism of action; sulfa drugs mimic the binding of PABA – para-aminobenzoic acid, a compound found in many sunscreens (Chemical Note: PABA occurs naturally as bacterial vitamin H1, and can also be found in yeast and plants. Chemists often borrow naturally-occurring compounds for industrial uses; two prominent examples are vanillin and Vitamin C). Disruption of this PABA binding shuts down bacterial DNA replication, stopping reproduction. Before now, however, no one had succeeded in growing crystals of the active site that actually showed the drugs interacting with the enzymatic intermediate. Let’s take one more step back: how does PABA attach itself? The enzyme we’re discussing, DHPS, catalyzes bond formation between PABA and intermediates known as pterins (see picture, left). Earlier researchers believed that this molecular hook-up operated by an SN2 mechanism, a reaction where the PABA kicks out a small piece of the pterin to form a new C-N bond. We chemists would say that SN2 means concerted bond formation, meaning that PABA would bind at the same time as the leaving group (OPPi), well, leaves. Turns out that picture’s not quite right: it’s more SN1-like, which means that the pterin first forms a positively-charged, enzyme-stabilized species! As you can imagine, this is no small feat, since the reaction works at physiological pH, in water, which could hydrate the intermediate (but doesn’t). Nope – instead, this charged molecule sits around waiting for a PABA – or a sulfa drug – to bind to it. When PABA binds, the complex exits...

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Neuroscience Outtakes Part 2: Vanderbilt’s Jeff Conn on the Role of Academic Labs

On Monday, we highlighted outtakes from our interview with Michael Ehlers, Pfizer’s CSO for neuroscience research, for our story on the state of neuroscience R&D. Today, we wanted to offer a view from academia: Jeff Conn is head of the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery, which in the past several years has generated a number of CNS drug candidates. While Ehler is focused on the growing body of genetic information that could pave the way for new neuroscience targets, Conn’s lab is taking a somewhat different approach. By scouring the literature for evidence–in humans–of a molecule or target’s activity, the lab then sinks substantial resources into understanding the basic biology driving that activity and designing molecules to exploit it. In depression, for example, R&D has been stalled by a lack of new targets. But Conn’s lab is intrigued by studies showing that ketamine, an animal tranquilizer (and club drug), swiftly and effectively reduces the symptoms of major depressive disorder. “When I talk to scientists at Vanderbilt, its an approach they’re using for their most refractory patients,” Conn says. A laundry list of side effects makes wider use of ketamine improbable. As such, Conn’s lab is looking at ways to design molecules that produce the same kind of results on depression without the adverse effects. Conn, a former Merck researcher, also discussed ways that discovery efforts inside academia can build a scientific case for CNS programs that pharma might otherwise overlook. Vanderbilt scientists spend “twice as much effort in basic science than for the drug discovery itself, and to me, that’s absolutely critical,” Conn says. When the team finds that molecules have different profiles in vitro, they spend a lot of time trying to understand how that will translate into adverse effects in vivo. “In pharma, you have to stay on such a narrow, direct path, that you have to ignore all that,” Conn says. In the academic lab, researchers take a longer, more methodical approach that entails optimizing many different molecules, then putting those in animals to understand what properties a final drug candidate needs to have. That approach has enabled Vanderbilt scientists to tackle drug targets that have tripped up industry. “mGluR5 is a good example where, early on, we started seeing different properties of molecules in vitro,” he says. “Instead of putting blinders on and moving forward or ignoring it,” an avenue industry scientists are often forced to take, “we deliberately put a lot of effort into optimizing those properties.” As a result, the Vanderbilt group and its collaborator, J&J, recently moved forward what Conn calls “very safe” schizophrenia drug candidates targeting mGlur5. “I don’t think...

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Exploring Rational Drug Design
Feb17

Exploring Rational Drug Design

Medicinal chemists strive to optimize molecules that fit snugly into their proposed targets. But in the quest for potency, we often overlook the local physics that govern drugs’ binding to these receptors. What if we could rationally predict which drugs bind well to their targets? A new review, currently out on J. Med. Chem. ASAP, lays out all the computational backing behind this venture. Three computational chemists (David Huggins, Woody Sherman, and Bruce Tidor) break down five binding events from the point-of-view of the drug target: Shape Complementarity, Electrostatics, Protein Flexibility, Explicit Water Displacement, and Allosteric Modulation….whew! Note: Before we dive into this article, let’s clarify a few terms computational drug-hunters use that bench chemists think of differently: ‘decoy’ – a test receptor used to perform virtual screens; ‘ligand’ – the drug docking into the protein; ‘affinity / selectivity’ – a balance of characteristics, or how tightly something binds vs. which proteins it binds to; ‘allosteric’ – binding of a drug molecule to a different site on an enzyme than the normal active site. Regular readers and fans of compu-centric chem blogs such as The Curious Wavefunction and Practical Fragments will feel right at home! We’ll start at the top. Shape complementarity modeling uses small differences in a binding pocket, such as a methylene spacer in a residue (say, from a Val to Ile swap) to dial-in tighter binding between a target and its decoy. The authors point out that selectivity can often be enhanced by considering a drug that’s literally too big to fit into a related enzymatic cavity. They provide several other examples with a ROCK-1 or MAP kinase flavor, and consider software packages designed to dock drugs into the “biologically active” conformation of the protein. Electrostatic considerations use polar surface maps, the “reds” and “blues” of a receptor’s electronic distribution, to show how molecular contacts can help binding to overcome the desolvation penalty (the energy cost involved in moving water out and the drug molecule in). An extension of this basic tactic, charge optimization screening, can be used to test whole panels of drugs against dummy receptors to determine how mutations might influence drug binding. Because target proteins move and shift constantly, protein flexibility, the ability of the protein to adapt to a binding event, is another factor worth considering. The authors point out that many kinases possess a “DFG loop” region that can shift and move to reveal a deeper binding cavity in the kinase, which can help when designing binders (for a collection of several receptors with notoriously shifty binding pockets – sialidase, MMPs, cholinesterase – see p. 534 of Teague’s NRDD review). But these...

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Shedding Light on Cancer Cells

Quyen Nguyen is a surgeon at the University of California, San Diego who has worked with chemists to develop molecular beacon type dyes that light up when they come into contact with cancerous tissue or nerve cells. This could give surgeons a sort of chemistry-based augmented reality, showing them exactly where and where not to...

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Amides: Humble But Useful
Sep15

Amides: Humble But Useful

A heartfelt thank-you to Chemjobber and See Arr Oh for helpful discussions! CENtral Science’s benevolent overlord, Rachel Pepling, has organized a blog carnival around the theme of “your favorite chemical reaction”. For the Haystack’s contribution, I thought it would be appropriate to write about a reaction medicinal chemists might find familiar. So I re-read See Arr Oh’s post about which types of reactions were really the most common in the med-chem toolkit. I decided on amide formation, which sits just about at the top of the list. I’m not sure it’s my favorite chemical reaction; I’ve got a special place in my heart for the Heck reaction (or Mizoroki-Heck reaction), though I’ve already blogged extensively about it. But every amide bond formation I ran in grad school worked. That’s justification enough for me! Amides are the chemical ties that bind amino acids together to form peptides and proteins. Amides also turn up in a variety of other small molecules that nature makes. So it’s not surprising that amides are frequently found in drugs. Take a look at University of Arizona chemist Jón T. Njarðarson’s poster of top brand name drugs and marvel at the amide-y goodness. Amide bond formation isn’t accomplished by a single, archetypical chemical reaction– far from it. I thought I’d provide a brief overview of some classic chemistry in this area and then move into a selection of modern-day additions to the amide-construction toolkit. At first glance, it looks like all that’s needed to make an amide is to combine a carboxylic acid and an amine. But to make those two components come together, chemists have had to grease the wheels a bit by activating the carboxylic acid. Converting the carboxylic acid into an acid chloride or acid anhydride are among the oldest of the old-school methods for this. In 1955, MIT chemist John C. Sheehan reported a different idea—use of a coupling reagent, dicyclohexylcarbodiimide (DCC). Classics in Total Synthesis notes that in its time, DCC was “an important advance in the state of the art for forming amide bonds.” In fact, Sheehan used it, along with the base potassium hydroxide, in the critical final step of the first total synthesis of penicillin– construction of the beta-lactam ring of the molecule. However, separation of byproducts from the desired amide can be a limitation of DCC, according to the Haystack’s intrepid guest blogger See Arr Oh. Today, “O-chemists have newer, sexier reagents,” See Arr Oh adds. Those reagents include N-Ethyl-N′-(3-dimethylaminopropyl)carbodiimide hydrochloride (EDAC), a next-generation version of DCC that’s water soluble, and other classes of activating reagents including uronium and phosphonium reagents. John Pokorsi, a student in Karl...

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