Targeted protein degradation offers several advantages over direct inhibition of protein activity and is gaining increasing interest in chemical biology and drug discovery. Proteolysis targeting chimeras (PROTACs) in particular are enjoying widespread application. However, PROTACs, which recruit an E3 ligase for degradation of a target protein, still suffer from certain challenges. These include a limited selection for E3 ligases on the one hand and the requirement for potent target binding on the other hand. Both issues restrict the target scope available for PROTACs. Degraders that covalently engage the target protein or the E3 ligase can potentially expand the pool of both targets and E3 ligases. Moreover, they may offer additional advantages by improving the kinetics of ternary complex formation or by endowing additional selectivity to the degrader. Here, we review the recent progress in the emerging field of covalent PROTACs.
Targeted covalent inhibitors are an important class of drugs and chemical probes. However, relatively few electrophiles meet the criteria for successful covalent inhibitor design. Here we describe α-substituted methacrylamides as a new class of electrophiles suitable for targeted covalent inhibitors. While typically α-substitutions inactivate acrylamides, we show that hetero α-substituted methacrylamides have higher thiol reactivity and undergo a conjugated addition–elimination reaction ultimately releasing the substituent. Their reactivity toward thiols is tunable and correlates with the pKa/pKb of the leaving group. In the context of the BTK inhibitor ibrutinib, these electrophiles showed lower intrinsic thiol reactivity than the unsubstituted ibrutinib acrylamide. This translated to comparable potency in protein labeling, in vitro kinase assays, and functional cellular assays, with improved selectivity. The conjugate addition–elimination reaction upon covalent binding to their target cysteine allows functionalizing α-substituted methacrylamides as turn-on probes. To demonstrate this, we prepared covalent ligand directed release (CoLDR) turn-on fluorescent probes for BTK, EGFR, and K-RasG12C. We further demonstrate a BTK CoLDR chemiluminescent probe that enabled a high-throughput screen for BTK inhibitors. Altogether we show that α-substituted methacrylamides represent a new and versatile addition to the toolbox of targeted covalent inhibitor design.
The ubiquitous heat shock protein 70 (HSP70) family consists of ATP-dependent molecular chaperones, which perform numerous cellular functions that affect almost all aspects of the protein life cycle from synthesis to degradation1–3. Achieving this broad spectrum of functions requires precise regulation of HSP70 activity. Proteins of the HSP40 family, also known as J-domain proteins (JDPs), have a key role in this process by preselecting substrates for transfer to their HSP70 partners and by stimulating the ATP hydrolysis of HSP70, leading to stable substrate binding3,4. In humans, JDPs constitute a large and diverse family with more than 40 different members2, which vary in their substrate selectivity and in the nature and number of their client-binding domains5. Here we show that JDPs can also differ fundamentally in their interactions with HSP70 chaperones. Using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy6,7 we find that the major class B JDPs are regulated by an autoinhibitory mechanism that is not present in other classes. Although in all JDPs the interaction of the characteristic J-domain is responsible for the activation of HSP70, in DNAJB1 the HSP70-binding sites in this domain are intrinsically blocked by an adjacent glycine-phenylalanine rich region—an inhibition that can be released upon the interaction of a second site on DNAJB1 with the HSP70 C-terminal tail. This regulation, which controls substrate targeting to HSP70, is essential for the disaggregation of amyloid fibres by HSP70–DNAJB1, illustrating why no other class of JDPs can substitute for class B in this function. Moreover, this regulatory layer, which governs the functional specificities of JDP co-chaperones and their interactions with HSP70s, could be key to the wide range of cellular functions of HSP70.
Mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase 7 (MAP2K7) in the c-Jun N-terminal kinase signal cascade is an attractive drug target for a variety of diseases. The selectivity of MAP2K7 inhibitors against off-target kinases is a major barrier in drug development. We report a crystal structure of MAP2K7 complexed with a potent covalent inhibitor bearing an acrylamide moiety as an electrophile, which discloses a structural basis for producing selective and potent MAP2K7 inhibitors.
COVID-19, caused by SARS-CoV-2, lacks effective therapeutics. Additionally, no antiviral drugs or vaccines were developed against the closely related coronavirus, SARS-CoV-1 or MERS-CoV, despite previous zoonotic outbreaks. To identify starting points for such therapeutics, we performed a large-scale screen of electrophile and non-covalent fragments through a combined mass spectrometry and X-ray approach against the SARS-CoV-2 main protease, one of two cysteine viral proteases essential for viral replication. Our crystallographic screen identified 71 hits that span the entire active site, as well as 3 hits at the dimer interface. These structures reveal routes to rapidly develop more potent inhibitors through merging of covalent and non-covalent fragment hits; one series of low-reactivity, tractable covalent fragments were progressed to discover improved binders. These combined hits offer unprecedented structural and reactivity information for on-going structure-based drug design against SARS-CoV-2 main protease.
Proteolysis-targeting chimeras (PROTACs), which induce degradation by recruitment of an E3 ligase to a target protein, are gaining much interest as a new pharmacological modality. However, designing PROTACs is challenging. Formation of a ternary complex between the protein target, the PROTAC and the recruited E3 ligase is considered paramount for successful degradation. A structural model of this ternary complex could in principle inform rational PROTAC design. Unfortunately, only a handful of structures are available for such complexes, necessitating tools for their modeling. We developed a combined protocol for the modeling of a ternary complex induced by a given PROTAC. Our protocol alternates between sampling of the protein-protein interaction space and the PROTAC molecule conformational space. Application of this protocol - PRosettaC - to a benchmark of known PROTAC ternary complexes results in near-native predictions, with often atomic accuracy prediction of the protein chains, as well as the PROTAC binding moieties. It allowed the modeling of a CRBN/BTK complex that recapitulated experimental results for a series of PROTACs. PRosettaC generated models may be used to design PROTACs for new targets, as well as improve PROTACs for existing targets, potentially cutting down time and synthesis efforts. To enable wide access to this protocol we have made it available through a web-server (http://prosettac.weizmann.ac.il/).
PROteolysis Targeting Chimeras (PROTACs) represent an exciting inhibitory modality with many advantages, including sub-stoichiometric degradation of targets. Their scope, though, is still limited to-date by the requirement for a sufficiently potent target binder. A solution that proved useful in tackling challenging targets is the use of electrophiles to allow irreversible binding to the target. However, such binding will negate the catalytic nature of PROTACs. Reversible covalent PROTACs potentially offer the best of both worlds. They possess the potency and selectivity associated with the formation of the covalent bond, while being able to dissociate and regenerate once the protein target is degraded. Using Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) as a clinically relevant model system, we show efficient covalent degradation by non-covalent, irreversible covalent and reversible covalent PROTACs, with <10 nM DC50’s and >85% degradation. Our data suggests that part of the degradation by our irreversible covalent PROTACs is driven by reversible binding prior to covalent bond formation, while the reversible covalent PROTACs drive degradation primarily by covalent engagement. The PROTACs showed enhanced inhibition of B cell activation compared to Ibrutinib, and exhibit potent degradation of BTK in patients-derived primary chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells. The most potent reversible covalent PROTAC, RC-3, exhibited enhanced selectivity towards BTK compared to non-covalent and irreversible covalent PROTACs. These compounds may pave the way for the design of covalent PROTACs for a wide variety of challenging targets.
KRAS, one of the most prevalent oncogenes and sought-after anticancer targets, has eluded chemists for decades until an irreversible covalent strategy targeting a specific mutation (G12C) paved the way for the first KRAS inhibitors to reach the clinic. MRTX849 is one such clinical candidate with promising initial results in patients harboring the mutation. The impressive optimization story of MRTX849 highlights challenges and solutions in the development of covalent drugs, including the use of an α-fluoroacrylamide electrophile.
Peptidyl-prolyl cis/trans isomerase NIMA-interacting 1 (Pin1) is commonly overexpressed in human cancers, including pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). While Pin1 is dispensable for viability in mice, it is required for activated Ras to induce tumorigenesis, suggesting a role for Pin1 inhibitors in Ras-driven tumors, such as PDAC. We report the development of rationally designed peptide inhibitors that covalently target Cys113, a highly conserved cysteine located in the Pin1 active site. The inhibitors were iteratively optimized for potency, selectivity and cell permeability to give BJP-06-005-3, a versatile tool compound with which to probe Pin1 biology and interrogate its role in cancer. In parallel to inhibitor development, we employed genetic and chemical-genetic strategies to assess the consequences of Pin1 loss in human PDAC cell lines. We demonstrate that Pin1 cooperates with mutant KRAS to promote transformation in PDAC, and that Pin1 inhibition impairs cell viability over time in PDAC cell lines.
Bruton's tyrosine kinase (BTK) is a major drug target for B-cell related malignancies; however, existing BTK inhibitors approved for cancer treatment have significant off-targets that limit their use for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. Remibrutinib (LOU064) is a novel covalent BTK inhibitor that binds an inactive BTK conformation, which affords it unprecedented selectivity. Its optimization led to rapid BTK engagement in vivo and fast clearance, further limiting systemic exposure. Remibrutinib is currently in phase 2 clinical trials for treatment of chronic urticaria and Sjoegren's syndrome.
FAT10 is a ubiquitin-like protein suggested to target proteins for proteasomal degradation. It is highly upregulated upon pro-inflammatory cytokines, namely, TNF alpha, IFN gamma, and IL6, and was found to be highly expressed in various epithelial cancers. Evidence suggests that FAT10 is involved in cancer development and may have a pro-tumorigenic role. However, its biological role is still unclear, as well as its biochemical and cellular regulation. To identify pathways underlying FAT10 expression in the context of pro-inflammatory stimulation, which characterizes the cancerous environment, we implemented a phenotypic transcriptional reporter screen with a library of annotated compounds. We identified AZ960, a potent JAK2 inhibitor, which significantly downregulates FAT10 under pro-inflammatory cytokines induction, in an NF kappa B-independent manner. We validated JAK2 as a major regulator of FAT10 expression via knockdown, and we suggest that the transcriptional effects are mediated through pSTAT1/3/5. Overall, we have elucidated a pathway regulating FAT10 transcription and discovered a tool compound to chemically downregulate FAT10 expression, and to further study its biology.
Insecticides allow control of agricultural pests and disease vectors and are vital for global food security and health. The evolution of resistance to insecticides, such as organophosphates (OPs), is a serious and growing concern. OP resistance often involves sequestration or hydrolysis of OPs by carboxylesterases. Inhibiting carboxylesterases could, therefore, restore the effectiveness of OPs for which resistance has evolved. Here, we use covalent virtual screening to produce nano-/picomolar boronic acid inhibitors of the carboxylesterase alpha E7 from the agricultural pest Lucilia cuprina as well as a common Gly137Asp alpha E7 mutant that confers OP resistance. These inhibitors, with high selectivity against human acetylcholinesterase and low to no toxicity in human cells and in mice, act synergistically with the OPs diazinon and malathion to reduce the amount of OP required to kill L. cuprina by up to 16-fold and abolish resistance. The compounds exhibit broad utility in significantly potentiating another OP, chlorpyrifos, against the common pest, the peach-potato aphid (Myzus persicae). These compounds represent a solution to OP resistance as well as to environmental concerns regarding overuse of OPs, allowing significant reduction of use without compromising efficacy.
Covalent probes can display unmatched potency, selectivity, and duration of action; however, their discovery is challenging. In principle, fragments that can irreversibly bind their target can overcome the low affinity that limits reversible fragment screening, but such electrophilic fragments were considered nonselective and were rarely screened. We hypothesized that mild electrophiles might overcome the selectivity challenge and constructed a library of 993 mildly electrophilic fragments. We characterized this library by a new high-throughput thiol-reactivity assay and screened them against 10 cysteine-containing proteins. Highly reactive and promiscuous fragments were rare and could be easily eliminated. In contrast, we found hits for most targets. Combining our approach with high-throughput crystallography allowed rapid progression to potent and selective probes for two enzymes, the deubiquitinase OTUB2 and the pyrophosphatase NUDT7. No inhibitors were previously known for either. This study highlights the potential of electrophile-fragment screening as a practical and efficient tool for covalent-ligand discovery.
The c-Jun NH2-terminal kinase (JNK) signaling pathway is central to the cell response to stress, inflammatory signals, and toxins. While selective inhibitors are known for JNKs and for various upstream MAP3Ks, no selective inhibitor is reported for MKK7––one of two direct MAP2Ks that activate JNK. Here, using covalent virtual screening, we identify selective MKK7 covalent inhibitors. We optimized these compounds to low-micromolar inhibitors of JNK phosphorylation in cells. The crystal structure of a lead compound bound to MKK7 demonstrated that the binding mode was correctly predicted by docking. We asserted the selectivity of our inhibitors on a proteomic level and against a panel of 76 kinases, and validated an on-target effect using knockout cell lines. Lastly, we show that the inhibitors block activation of primary mouse B cells by lipopolysaccharide. These MKK7 tool compounds will enable better investigation of JNK signaling and may serve as starting points for therapeutics.
The success of targeted covalent inhibitors in the global pharmaceutical industry has led to a resurgence of covalent drug discovery. However, covalent inhibitor design for flexible binding sites remains a difficult task due to a lack of methodological development. Here, we compared covalent docking to empirical electrophile screening against the highly dynamic target K-Ras(G12C). While the overall hit rate of both methods was comparable, we were able to rapidly progress a docking hit to a potent irreversible covalent binder that modifies the inactive, GDP-bound state of K-Ras(G12C). Hydrogen-deuterium exchange mass spectrometry was used to probe the protein dynamics of compound binding to the switch-II pocket and subsequent destabilization of the nucleotide-binding region. SOS-mediated nucleotide exchange assays showed that, contrary to prior switch-II pocket inhibitors, these new compounds appear to accelerate nucleotide exchange. This study highlights the efficiency of covalent docking as a tool for the discovery of chemically novel hits against challenging targets.
Chemokines orchestrate cellmigration for development, immune surveillance, and disease by binding to cell surface heterotrimeric guanine nucleotide-binding protein (G protein)-coupled receptors (GPCRs). The array of interactions between the nearly 50 chemokines and their 20 GPCR targets generates an extensive signaling network to which promiscuity and biased agonism add further complexity. The receptor CXCR4 recognizes both monomeric and dimeric forms of the chemokine CXCL12, which is a distinct example of ligand bias in the chemokine family. We demonstrated that a constitutively monomeric CXCL12 variant reproduced the G protein-dependent and b-arrestin-dependent responses that are associated with normal CXCR4 signaling and lead to cell migration. In addition, monomeric CXCL12 made specific contacts with CXCR4 that are not present in the structure of the receptor in complex with a dimeric form of CXCL12, a biased agonist that stimulates only G protein-dependent signaling. We produced an experimentally validated model of an agonist-bound chemokine receptor that merged a nuclear magnetic resonance-based structure of monomeric CXCL12 bound to the amino terminus of CXCR4 with a crystal structure of the transmembrane domains of CXCR4. The large CXCL12: CXCR4 protein-protein interface revealed by this structure identified previously uncharacterized functional interactions that fall outside of the classical "two-site model" for chemokine-receptor recognition. Our model suggests a mechanistic hypothesis for how interactions on the extracellular face of the receptor may stimulate the conformational changes required for chemokine receptor-mediated signal transduction.
This volume covers an array of techniques available for studying peptide-protein docking and design. The book is divided into four sections: peptide binding site prediction; peptide-protein docking; prediction and design of peptide binding specificity; and the design of inhibitory peptides. The chapters in Modeling Peptide-Protein Interactions: Methods and Protocols cover topics such as the usage of ACCLUSTER and PeptiMap for peptide binding site prediction; AnchorDock and ATTRACT for blind, flexible docking of peptides to proteins; flexible peptide docking using HADDOCK and FlexPepDock; identifying loop-mediated protein-protein interactions using LoopFinder; and protein-peptide interaction design using PinaColada. Written in the highly successful Methods in Molecular Biology series format, chapters include introductions to their respective topics, lists of the necessary details for successful application of the different approaches and step-by-step, readily reproducible protocols, as well as tips on troubleshooting and avoiding known pitfalls.Cutting-edge and thorough, Modeling Peptide-Protein Interactions: Methods and Protocols provides a diverse and unified overview of this rapidly advancing field of major interest and applicability.
Inteins are genetic elements, inserted in-frame into protein-coding genes, whose products catalyze their removal from the protein precursor via a protein-splicing reaction. Intein domains can be split into two fragments and still ligate their flanks by a trans-protein-splicing reaction. A bioinformatic analysis of environmental metagenomic data revealed 26 different loci with a novel genomic arrangement. In each locus, a conserved enzyme coding region is broken in two by a split intein, with a free-standing endonuclease gene inserted in between. Eight types of DNA synthesis and repair enzymes have this fractured organization. The new types of naturally split-inteins were analyzed in comparison to known split-inteins. Some loci include apparent gene control elements brought in with the endonuclease gene. A newly predicted homing endonuclease family, related to very-short patch repair (Vsr) endonucleases, was found in half of the loci. These putative homing endonucleases also appear in group-I introns, and as stand-alone inserts in the absence of surrounding intervening sequences. The new fractured genes organization appears to be present mainly in phage, shows how endonucleases can integrate into inteins, and may represent a missing link in the evolution of gene breaking in general, and in the creation of split-inteins in particular.
A challenge in protein-protein docking is to account for the conformational changes in the monomers that occur upon binding. The RosettaDock method, which incorporates sidechain flexibility but keeps the backbone fixed, was found in previous CAPRI rounds (4 and 5) to generate docking models with atomic accuracy, provided that conformational changes were mainly restricted to protein sidechains. In the recent rounds of CAPRI (6-12), large backbone conformational changes occur upon binding for several target complexes. To address these challenges, we explicitly introduced backbone flexibility in our modeling procedures by combining rigid-body docking with protein structure prediction techniques such as modeling variable hops and building homology models. Encouragingly, using this approach we were able to correctly predict a significant backbone conformational change of an interface loop for Target 20 (12 Å rmsd between those in the unbound monomer and complex structures), but accounting for backbone flexibility in protein-protein docking is still very challenging because of the significantly larger conformational space, which must be surveyed. Motivated by these CAPRI challenges, we have made progress in reformulating RosettaDock using a "fold-tree" representation, which provides a general framework for treating a wide variety of flexible-backbone docking problems.