Category → Small Molecules
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 shifting proteins also swim in a sea of water and other cytoplasmic goodies. This means that drug designers, whether they like it or not, must account for explicit water molecules. The authors even suggest a sort of “on-off” switch for including the bound water molecules, but contend that more efforts should be directed to accurate modeling of water in these protein settings.
Finally, the authors weigh the effects of allosteric binding, the potential for a modeled molecule to be highly selective for a site apart from where the protein binds its native ligand. The authors consider the case of a PTP1B ligand that binds 20Å away from the normal active site, at the previously mentioned “DFG loop.” Since this binding hadn’t been seen for related phosphatases, it could then be used to control selectivity for PTP1B.
In each section, the authors provide examples of modeling studies that led to the design of a molecule. Two target classes recur often throughout the review: HIV protease inhibitors (saquinavir, lopinavir, darunavir) and COX-2 inhibitors (celecoxib), which have all been extensively modeled.
Two higher-level modeling problems are also introduced: the substrate-envelope hypothesis, which deals with rapidly mutating targets, and tailoring molecules to take rides in and out of the cell using influx and efflux pumps in the membrane. Since different cell types overexpress certain receptors, we can use this feature to our advantage. This strategy has been especially successful in the development of several cancer and CNS drugs.
Overall, the review feels quite thorough, though I suspect regular Haystack readers may experience the same learning curve I did when adapting to the field-specific language that permeates each section. Since pictures are worth a thousand words, I found that glancing through the docking graphics that accompany each section helped me gain a crucial foothold into the text.
Today brought a spate of M&A activity in the biotech space, with Amgen unveiling a $1.2 billion bid for Micromet, and Celgene agreeing to pay up to $925 million for Avila Therapeutics. Both deals brought the acquirer a drug in development to treat blood cancers, while also adding a platform technology to their research engines.
Being all about the chemistry, The Haystack is particularly interested in the Celgene/Avila deal, which involves covalent drug development technology. Celgene is paying $350 million upfront, with the promise of up to $195 million more if Avila’s lead covalent drug candidate, AVL-292, reaches the market. Pushing other covalent drugs through the pipeline could garner Avila shareholders another $380 million.
So what is a covalent drug, anyway? As C&EN’s Lila Guterman described last fall, covalent drugs form a permanent link with their target. By comparison, most conventional drugs are designed to reversibly bind to their targets—in other words, they can stick and “un-stick” to a protein.
The beauty of a covalent drug is that its specificity and potency means it can be given in low doses. As Guterman explains, patients only be given enough of the drug for molecule to reach each target protein molecule, and then another dose only when the body has generated more of that target protein. The low dose means less potential for drug-drug interactions and off-target effects.
Indeed, for years, scientists avoided developing covalent drugs out of fear that serious toxicity will arise if a covalent drug happens to permanently stick itself to the wrong protein. Check out Guterman’s piece for a cautionary toxicity tale from none other than “Rule-of-Five” inventor (and former Pfizer researcher) Christopher Lipinski.
The current generation of covalent drugs, however, is designed to assuage those fears through their highly selective and weakly reactive nature. Avila isn’t the only one banking on better molecular design leading to successful drugs: Zafgen’s obesity drug candidate ZGN433 also covalently binds to its target, an approach that—if it works—could enable it to sidestep the side effect issues that have plagued the obesity drug space.
So are these covalent drugs worth the price tag? Avila’s pipeline is relatively young, meaning there isn’t a lot of data to go on: AVL-292 is in Phase I studies in lymphomas; a compound targeting mutant EGFR is also in Phase I trials; meanwhile, two Hepatitis C drug candidates in preclinical studies. The company has also made public preclinical date on its PI3Kα-selective inhibitor (the same target as Intellikine’s INK1117, one of the drivers behind Takeda’s $190 million acquisition of Intellikine.).
In my story on how drugs get their generic names for this week’s issue of C&EN, I briefly discussed how the chronic myelogenous leukemia medication Sprycel (dasatinib), mentioned in this Haystack post by SeeArrOh, ended up being named after Bristol-Myers Squibb research fellow Jagabandhu Das. Even though Das, or Jag, as his coworkers call him, didn’t discover the molecule that bears his name, the program leader for Das’s team, Joel Barrish, says dasatinib wouldn’t have existed without him.
So how’d Das make a difference? About one and a half years into the search for a kinase inhibitor that might be able to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia, “we were hitting a wall,” Barrish, today vice-president of medicinal chemistry at BMS, recalls. “We couldn’t get past a certain level of potency.”
Early on, the team’s work suggested that a 4′-methyl thiazole was critical for potency. Replace the methyl with a hydrogen, and potency went out the window. But Das challenged that dogma, Barrish says. He thought the compound series had evolved to the point where it would be a good idea to go back and test those early assumptions. His hunch paid off– in the new, later kinase inhibitor series, it turned out that removing the methyl group from the thiazole actually boosted potency. Thanks in large part to that discovery, the team eventually was able to make kinase inhibitors with ten thousand fold higher activity.“Jag didn’t stop there,” Barrish says. After debunking the methyl dogma, Das found a way to replace an undesirable urea moiety in the team’s inhibitors with a pyrimidine group, which improved the inhibitors’ physical properties. With help from Das’s two insights combined, eventually BMS’s team came up with the molecule that became dasatinib (J. Med. Chem., DOI: 10.1021/jm060727j).
Generic naming requirements are extensive, but the committees involved in the naming process are willing to use inventors’ names as long as they fit the criteria.
But sometimes, Barrish says, “there’s luck involved in who makes the final compound.” In the dasatinib story, though, it was clear that Das’s discoveries were the keys to success.
When dasatinib was in clinical trials and it came time to put forward a set of possible generic names for consideration, Barrish didn’t have to think too hard about who was most responsible for his team’s success. “It was very clear in my mind that it was Jag,” he says. So he added dasatinib to the list.
“I admit, it was one of those things you do and you kind of forget about it, thinking, ‘oh, they’ll pick something else’,” Barrish says. When dasatinib ended up being the name of choice, he says, it made the entire team feel good. “And obviously, Jag was quite pleased with it.”
Well, 2011 is in the books, and we here at The Haystack felt nostalgic for all the great chemistry coverage over this past year, both here and farther afield. Let’s hit the high points:
1. HCV Takes Off – New treatments for Hepatitis C have really gained momentum. An amazing race has broken out to bring orally available, non-interferon therapies to market. In October, we saw Roche acquire Anadys for setrobuvir, and then watched Pharmasset’s success with PSI-7977 prompt Gilead’s $11 billion November buyout. And both these deals came hot on the heels of Merck and Vertex each garnering FDA approval for Victrelis and Incivek, respectively, late last spring.
2. Employment Outlook: Mixed – The Haystack brought bad employment tidings a few times in 2011, as Lisa reported. The “patent cliff” faced by blockbuster drugs, combined with relatively sparse pharma pipelines, had companies tightening their belts more than normal. Traffic also increased for Chemjobber Daily Pump Trap updates, which cover current job openings for chemists of all stripes. The highlight, though, might be his Layoff Project. He collects oral histories from those who’ve lost their jobs over the past few years due to the pervasive recession and (slowly) recovering US economy.. The result is a touching, direct, and sometimes painful collection of stories from scientists trying to reconstruct their careers, enduring salary cuts, moves, and emotional battles just to get back to work.
3. For Cancer, Targeted Therapies – It’s also been quite a year for targeted cancer drugs. A small subset of myeloma patients (those with a rare mutation) gained hope from vemurafenib approval. This molecule, developed initially by Plexxikon and later by Roche / Daiichi Sankyo, represents the first success of fragment-based lead discovery, where a chunk of the core structure is built up into a drug with help from computer screening.From Ariad’s promising ponatinib P2 data for chronic myeloid leukemia, to Novartis’s Afinitor working in combination with aromasin to combat resistant breast cancer. Lisa became ‘xcited for Xalkori, a protein-driven lung cancer therapeutic from Pfizer. Researchers at Stanford Medical School used GLUT1 inhibitors to starve renal carcinomas of precious glucose, Genentech pushed ahead MEK-P31K inhibitor combinations for resistant tumors, and Incyte’s new drug Jakifi (ruxolitinib), a Janus kinase inhibitor, gave hope to those suffering from the rare blood cancer myelofibrosis.
4. Sirtuins, and “Stuff I Won’t Work With – Over at In the Pipeline, Derek continued to chase high-profile pharma stories. We wanted to especially mention his Sirtris / GSK coverage (we had touched on this issue in Dec 2010). He kept up with the “sirtuin saga” throughout 2011, from trouble with duplicating life extension in model organisms to the Science wrap-up at years’ end. Derek also left us with a tantalizing tidbit for 2012 – the long-awaited “Things I Won’t Work With” book may finally be coming out!
5. Active Antibacterial Development – In the middle of 2011, several high-profile and deadly bacterial infections (Germany, Colorado, among others) shined a spotlight on those companies developing novel antibacterials. We explored front -line antibiotics for nasty Gram-negative E.coli, saw FDA approval for Optimer’s new drug Fidiclir (fidaxomicin) show promise against C. difficile and watched Anacor’s boron-based therapeutics advance into clinical testing for acne, and a multi-year BARDA grant awarded to GSK and Anacor to develop antibacterials against bioterrorism microorganisms like Y. pestis.
6. Obesity, Diabetes, and IBS – Drugs for metabolic disorders have been well-represented in Haystack coverage since 2010. Both Carmen and See Arr Oh explored the vagaries of Zafgen’s ZGN-433 structure, as the Contrave failure threatened to sink obesity drug development around the industry. Diabetes drugs tackled some novel mechanisms and moved a lot of therapies forward, such as Pfizer’s SGLT2 inhibitors, and Takeda’s pancreatic GPCR agonist. Ironwood and Forest, meanwhile, scored an NDA for their macrocyclic peptide drug, linaclotide.
7. The Medicine Show: Pharma’s Creativity Conundrum – In this piece from October, after Steve Jobs’ passing, Forbes columnist Matt Herper both eulogizes Jobs and confronts a real ideological break between computer designers and drug developers. His emphasis? In biology and medical fields, “magical thinking” does not always fix situations as it might in computer development.
We hope you’ve enjoyed wading through the dense forest of drug development with Carmen, Aaron, Lisa, and See Arr Oh this past year. We here at The Haystack wish you a prosperous and healthy 2012, and we invite you to come back for more posts in the New Year!
Sufferers of chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), a rare and tough-to-treat blood cancer, received some good news at the 2011 American Society of Hematology meeting in San Diego this week. On Monday, ARIAD Pharmaceuticals disclosed new results from the Phase 2 PACE trial of its lead drug ponatinib (AP24534). The data (covered by FierceBiotech, Xconomy, and TheStreet), indicate major responses to the drug in ~40% of recipients, even in advanced or refractory (resistant to treatment) CML .
With these numbers in hand, ARIAD enters a tight race, already populated by headliners like Gleevec (imatinib), which in 2001 made a splash as a first-line CML therapy. Drugs such as Gleevec and ponatinib belong to the family of tyrosine kinase (TK) inhibitors, which dock with a mutated protein called Bcr-Abl. This protein (actually a fusion of two distinct proteins via a chromosomal mishap) triggers disease by accelerating blood cell creation, leading to uncontrolled growth and eventually CML.
Since cancers constantly evolve, new mutations in the TK active site had rendered Gleevec ineffective for certain variations of CML. Many of the PACE trial patients had previously tried newer TK inhibitors, such as Sprycel (dasatinib, BMS) and Tasigna (nilotinib, Novartis), and found that their CML had become resistant due to a single amino acid mutation in the kinase active site, which swapped a polar residue (threonine) for a carbon chain (isoleucine). So, ARIAD chemists decided to develop a drug that borrowed the best points from the earlier therapies, but capitalized on this mutation (A pertinent review in Nature Chemical Biology covers early examples of “personalized” cancer drugs developed for disease variants).
So, how did they accomplish this particular act of molecular kung-fu? For that, we hit up the literature and go all the way back to . . . 2010. As explained in a development round-up (J. Med. Chem., 2010, 53, 4701), most approved Bcr-Abl inhibitors share several traits: densely-packed nitrogen heterocycles linked to a toluyl (methyl-phenyl) amide, then a highly polar end group, such as piperazine or imidazole. Since the mutation axed a threonine residue, the hydrogen-bond donor adjacent to the ring in earlier drugs was no longer necessary. So, chemists replaced it with a vinyl group.
A computer analysis designed to achieve better binding and drug-like properties suggested an alkyne linker might fit into the mutated active site even better than a vinyl group, so that’s ultimately what ARIAD installed. The program also suggested moving an exocyclic amino group into the aromatic (forming an uncommon imiadzo-[1,2-b]-pyridazine, green in picture). Borrowing the best stuff from other therapies, ARIAD’s chemists also wove in the “flipped” amide and -CF3 motifs (both blue) from nilotinib, as well as the methylpiperazine (red) from imatinib.
With computational rendering (Cancer Cell, 2009, 16, 401) ARIAD scientists could overlay both imatinib and ponatinib in the mutated enzyme’s active site (see picture, right). Notice that unlike imatinib, ponatinib avoids bumping into isoleucine 315. Ponatinib also gets a little extra binding oomph by poking its CF3 group into a hydrophobic pocket near the bottom of the active site.
The “morning-after” pill, used to prevent conception when other planning methods fail, became a political lightning rod this week. Reports by Pharmalot, NPR, Reuters, and many others relate how the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services blocked an FDA recommendation to provide over-the-counter access to this treatment to a wider range of patients (currently, women under the age of 17 must have a prescription to obtain Plan B).
After the uproar generated by the announcement, I wondered what, exactly, was this contentious molecule, and what did it do?
In the US, hospitals administer Plan B as two small pills, each with a 750 μg dose of the synthetic hormone levonorgestrel. First approved by the FDA in 1999, levonorgestrel prompted several companies, among them generic manufacturers Barr, Watson, and Teva, to jump in as suppliers in the ensuing decade. According to a 2011 Teva patent, Plan B is most effective when taken within 72 hours of when a person’s first-line contraceptive fails. The FDA estimates its success rate at 80-90%.
Levonorgestrel binds to the same receptors as other sex hormones (think estradiol or progesterone), and prevents ovulation or impairs fertilization of egg cells. Some researchers believe that Plan B prohibits already-fertilized eggs from adhering to the endometrium (uterine inner wall), which might prevent further embryonic development leading to pregnancy. In fact, a large dose of 17-α-ethinylestradiol (EE) – the main ingredient in most birth control pills – can sometimes be used “off-label” to achieve the same effect.
The uncertainty over whether Plan B actually terminates pregnancies brings it onto similar ground with mifepristone (RU-486) and diethylstilbestrol (DES). These two drugs, previously popular options for emergency contraception, have mixed public perception today; many associate RU-486 with abortion, and DES with endocrine disorders and tumor formation in offspring.
Chemistry Note: It’s humbling to watch Mother Nature re-use the same chemical templates over and over, and that small changes in the overall steroid structure lead to huge biochemical consequences. Like Batman, with his never-ending supply of utility-belt gadgets, the steroid core structure can be tweaked in seemingly endless ways to produce biologically active molecules. I would have to devote (several) more posts to just how many modifications, but think about the effects simple oxidation (bile acids), ring expansion (cortistatins), or conjugation (sulfonated sterols) have on biological processes.
The sex hormones have been puzzling synthetic chemists for nearly 100 years; in fact, two prominent chemists spent large portions of their careers perfecting the introduction of a single methyl group into the steroid core! Levonorgestrel claims “second-generation” hormone status; next-gen progestins, such as desogestrel, do away completely with C-3 oxygenation, and sport a new alkene at C-11. These new atomic decorations lead to improved side-effect profiles and lower the overall EE dose in combined pill formulations.
Update (6:05PM, Dec 9, 2011) – Changed “mg” to “μg” (Thanks, Ed!)
Late last month, researchers from many different fields gathered at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, to discuss the benefits of open science and data sharing. One of the best talks from that event, the Open Science Summit, was delivered by Joel Dudley, the co-founder of NuMedii, a firm that aims to find new indications for medications.
Dudley has repeatedly found new uses for old drugs by picking through public data sets about the gene expression profiles of different diseases. He then looks for medications that are known to reverse those profiles.
Much of the data that Dudley uses comes from the Gene Expression Omnibus, which he regards as a gold mine.
A full list of videos from the Open Science Summit is also available.
Biogen Idec made a splash last week when its oral medication for multiple sclerosis (MS), BG-12, was found to reduce relapses in 44-53% of nearly 3,800 patients in two separate Phase 3 clinical trials (CONFIRM and DEFINE, respectively). Continued hopes for an orally available, non-injectable MS treatment have created a race between Biogen Idec and several other firms, as C&EN’s Lisa Jarvis examines in a 2009 MS cover story. In fact, so much has changed in 2 years that two of the six Phase 3 drugs mentioned in that article – Teva’s laquinimod and Merck’s cladribine – have already been withdrawn from competition.
So what’s the secret sauce behind BG-12? Many pharmaceuticals are small molecules with multiple heteroatoms and aromatic rings, but not BG-12: it’s just dimethyl fumarate! A search for ‘fumarate’ on pubs.acs.org returned >4800 hits, which gives you an idea of its common use in several organic reactions: [3+2] cycloadditions, Diels-Alder reactions, and Michael additions. Interestingly, dimethyl fumarate is the all-E stereoisomer; the Z-configuration, where the two esters are on the same side of the central double bond, goes by the tagline ‘dimethyl maleate’ and does not seem to possess anti-MS effects.
Very small molecules such as BG-12 (molecular weight = 144) are notoriously tough to use as drugs: they hit lots of enzymatic targets, not just the intended ones, and tend to have unpredictable side effects (see Derek Lowe’s 2005 article regarding the FDA “approvability” of several common drugs today). Toss in BG-12’s alkylating behavior to boot (fumarates can interact with nucleophilic amines or sulfides at multiple sites, including enzyme active sites), and you have to wonder how it functions in the body. Well, so do scientists. A 2011 review implicates up to 3 potential biochemical mechanisms – the Nrf2 pathway Lisa mentioned in the 2009 piece, T-helper phenotype 2 interleukin upregulation (IL-4, IL-10, IL-5, which “change gears” for immune system functioning), and CD62E inhibition, which controls adhesion of blood cells to inflammation sites.
Side notes: Flavoring chemists have added fumaric acid, the parent diacid of BG-12, to industrially-prepared foodstuffs such as baking powder and fruit juices since the 1930s. A darker side of dimethyl fumarate emerges when you consider its non-medicinal use: certain furniture companies applied it to new upholstered chairs and sofas to stop mold growth. This unfortunately caused several cases of severe skin irritation, which a 2008 exposé in London’s Daily Mail likened to actual burns.
It’s been a busy six months for new Hepatitis C (HCV) meds: first, Merck and Vertex have their drugs approved in May, and then Pharmasset leaks PSI-7977 clinical data. Now, Anadys Pharmaceuticals has just announced Phase IIb results for its clinical candidate setrobuvir (ANA-598). The pill lowered virus levels to undetectable limits in 78% of patients after 12 weeks of combination treatment with either ribavirin or pegylated interferon. Anadys notes only one major side effect, a rash occurring in 1/3 of the ‘598-treated patients. The therapy targets patients in tough-to-treat HCV genotype 1 (gen1), unlike PSI-7977, which targets gen2 and gen3.
The data seems to have convinced Roche, which acquired Anadys last Monday in all-cash deal analysts say represented a 260% premium over Anadys’s Friday stock closing price. Roche, no stranger to the HCV battle, hopes to integrate setrobuvir into a potential oral drug cocktail with its current suite of polymerase and protease inhibitors.
Setrobuvir interacts with N5SB polymerase at the allosteric “palm” binding site, located in the center of the baseball-mitt shaped enzyme. The drug’s sulfur-nitrogen heterocycle – a benzothiadiazine – is the key to virus inhibition; Anadys has installed the motif in all their HCV inhibitors, going back to their 2005 patents.
Chemists have known about the virus-targeting properties of this heterocycle for a while, but most derivatives have been culled in pre-clinical testing (see J. Antimicrob. Chemoth. 2004, 54, 14-16 for a brief review). Interestingly, chemists initially prepared benzodiathiazines, such as those in Merck’s chlorothiazide (c. 1957, according to the Merck Index), as diuretics, which found use in diabetic treatment. Over the next 40 years, modified medicines treated conditions ranging from epilepsy and cognitive therapy to hypertension and transcriptase regulation. Tweaked benzodiathiazines first showed anti-HIV and anti-CMV activity in the mid-1990s.
One final advantageous wrinkle in this structure: unlike PSI-7977, setrobuvir is not nucleoside-derived. This feature changes its binding behavior, pharmacokinetics, and even its intellectual property strategies, since many current antiviral therapies mimic the nucleosides found in RNA and DNA chains.