Designing covalent inhibitors is increasingly important, although it remains challenging. Here, we present covalentizer, a computational pipeline for identifying irreversible inhibitors based on structures of targets with non-covalent binders. Through covalent docking of tailored focused libraries, we identify candidates that can bind covalently to a nearby cysteine while preserving the interactions of the original molecule. We found ∼11,000 cysteines proximal to a ligand across 8,386 complexes in the PDB. Of these, the protocol identified 1,553 structures with covalent predictions. In a prospective evaluation, five out of nine predicted covalent kinase inhibitors showed half-maximal inhibitory concentration (IC50) values between 155 nM and 4.5 μM. Application against an existing SARS-CoV Mpro reversible inhibitor led to an acrylamide inhibitor series with low micromolar IC50 values against SARS-CoV-2 Mpro. The docking was validated by 12 co-crystal structures. Together these examples hint at the vast number of covalent inhibitors accessible through our protocol.
Chemical modifications of native proteins can affect their stability, activity, interactions, localization, and more. However, there are few nongenetic methods for the installation of chemical modifications at a specific protein site in cells. Here we report a covalent ligand directed release (CoLDR) site-specific labeling strategy, which enables the installation of a variety of functional tags on a target protein while releasing the directing ligand. Using this approach, we were able to label various proteins such as BTK, K-RasG12C, and SARS-CoV-2 PLpro with different tags. For BTK we have shown selective labeling in cells of both alkyne and fluorophores tags. Protein labeling by traditional affinity methods often inhibits protein activity since the directing ligand permanently occupies the target binding pocket. We have shown that using CoLDR chemistry, modification of BTK by these probes in cells preserves its activity. We demonstrated several applications for this approach including determining the half-life of BTK in its native environment with minimal perturbation, as well as quantification of BTK degradation by a noncovalent proteolysis targeting chimera (PROTAC) by in-gel fluorescence. Using an environment-sensitive “turn-on” fluorescent probe, we were able to monitor ligand binding to the active site of BTK. Finally, we have demonstrated efficient CoLDR-based BTK PROTACs (DC50 < 100 nM), which installed a CRBN binder onto BTK. This approach joins very few available labeling strategies that maintain the target protein activity and thus makes an important addition to the toolbox of chemical biology.
The peptidyl-prolyl isomerase, Pin1, is exploited in cancer to activate oncogenes and inactivate tumor suppressors. However, despite considerable efforts, Pin1 has remained an elusive drug target. Here, we screened an electrophilic fragment library to identify covalent inhibitors targeting Pin1's active site Cys113, leading to the development of Sulfopin, a nanomolar Pin1 inhibitor. Sulfopin is highly selective, as validated by two independent chemoproteomics methods, achieves potent cellular and in vivo target engagement and phenocopies Pin1 genetic knockout. Pin1 inhibition had only a modest effect on cancer cell line viability. Nevertheless, Sulfopin induced downregulation of c-Myc target genes, reduced tumor progression and conferred survival benefit in murine and zebrafish models of MYCN-driven neuroblastoma, and in a murine model of pancreatic cancer. Our results demonstrate that Sulfopin is a chemical probe suitable for assessment of Pin1-dependent pharmacology in cells and in vivo, and that Pin1 warrants further investigation as a potential cancer drug target.
Electrophilic peptides that form an irreversible covalent bond with their target have great potential for binding targets that have been previously considered undruggable. However, the discovery of such peptides remains a challenge. Here, we present Rosetta CovPepDock, a computational pipeline for peptide docking that incorporates covalent binding between the peptide and a receptor cysteine. We applied CovPepDock retrospectively to a dataset of 115 disulfide-bound peptides and a dataset of 54 electrophilic peptides. It produced a top-five scoring, near-native model, in 89% and 100% of the cases when docking from the native conformation, and 20% and 90% when docking from an extended peptide conformation, respectively. In addition, we developed a protocol for designing electrophilic peptide binders based on known non-covalent binders or protein–protein interfaces. We identified 7154 peptide candidates in the PDB for application of this protocol. As a proof-of-concept we validated the protocol on the non-covalent complex of 14-3-3σ and YAP1 phosphopeptide. The protocol identified seven highly potent and selective irreversible peptide binders. The predicted binding mode of one of the peptides was validated using X-ray crystallography. This case-study demonstrates the utility and impact of CovPepDock. It suggests that many new electrophilic peptide binders can be rapidly discovered, with significant potential as therapeutic molecules and chemical probes.
The spillover of animal coronaviruses (aCoVs) to humans has caused SARS, MERS, and COVID-19. Although antibody responses displaying cross-reactivity between SARS-CoV-2 and seasonal/common cold human coronaviruses (hCoVs) have been reported, potential cross-reactivity with aCoVs and the diagnostic implications are incompletely understood. Here, we probed for antibody binding against all 7 hCoVs and 49 aCoVs represented as 12,924 peptides within a phage-displayed antigen library. Antibody repertoires of 269 recovered patients with COVID-19 showed distinct changes compared with 260 unexposed prepandemic controls, not limited to binding of SARS-CoV-2 antigens but including binding to antigens from hCoVs and aCoVs with shared motifs to SARS-CoV-2. We isolated broadly reactive monoclonal antibodies from recovered patients with COVID-19 who bind a shared motif of SARS-CoV-2, hCoV-OC43, hCoV-HKU1, and several aCoVs, demonstrating that interspecies cross-reactivity can be mediated by a single immunoglobulin. Using antibody binding data against the entire CoV antigen library allowed accurate discrimination of recovered patients with COVID-19 from unexposed individuals by machine learning. Leaving out SARS-CoV-2 antigens and relying solely on antibody binding to other hCoVs and aCoVs achieved equally accurate detection of SARS-CoV-2 infection. The ability to detect SARS-CoV-2 infection without knowledge of its unique antigens solely from cross-reactive antibody responses against other hCoVs and aCoVs suggests a potential diagnostic strategy for the early stage of future pandemics. Creating regularly updated antigen libraries representing the animal coronavirome can provide the basis for a serological assay already poised to identify infected individuals after a future zoonotic transmission event.
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.
Electrophilic natural products (ENPs) are a rich source of bioactive molecules with tremendous therapeutic potential. While their synthetic complexity may hinder their direct use as therapeutics, they represent tools for elucidation of suitable molecular targets and serve as inspiration for the design of simplified synthetic counterparts. Here, we review the recent use of various activity-based protein profiling methods to uncover molecular targets of ENPs. Beyond target identification, these examples also showcase further development of synthetic ligands from natural product starting points. Two examples demonstrate how ENPs can progress the emerging fields of targeted protein degradation and molecular glues. Though challenges still remain in the synthesis of ENP-based probes, and in their synthetic simplification, their potential for discovery of novel mechanisms of action makes it well worth the effort.
The SARS-CoV-2 main viral protease (Mpro) is an attractive target for antivirals given its distinctiveness from host proteases, essentiality in the viral life cycle and conservation across coronaviridae. We launched the COVID Moonshot initiative to rapidly develop patent-free antivirals with open science and open data. Here we report the use of machine learning for de novo design, coupled with synthesis route prediction, in our campaign. We discover novel chemical scaffolds active in biochemical and live virus assays, synthesized with model generated routes.
Understanding protein-ligand interactions in a cellular context is an important goal in molecular biology and biochemistry, and particularly for drug development. Investigators must demonstrate that drugs penetrate cells and specifically bind their targets. Towards that end, we present a native mass spectrometry (MS)-based method for analyzing drug uptake and target engagement in eukaryotic cells. This method is based on our previously introduced direct-MS method for rapid analysis of proteins directly from crude samples. Here, direct-MS enables label-free studies of protein-drug binding in human cells and is used to determine binding affinities of lead compounds in crude samples. We anticipate that this method will enable the application of native MS to a range of problems where cellular context is important, including protein-protein interactions, drug uptake and binding, and characterization of therapeutic proteins.
Proteolysis targeting chimeras (PROTACs) are small molecules that form ternary complexes between their target and E3 ligase, resulting in ubiquitination and proteasomal degradation of the target protein. Using our own designed Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) PROTAC compounds, we show herein efficient BTK degradation in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) cells. The reversible non-covalent compound (NC-1) was the most potent and therefore we focused on this PROTAC to investigate its subsequent effects on the BCR pathway. NC-1 decreased baseline BTK phosphorylation as well as activation of BTK and other signaling molecules downstream of the BCR pathway, following IgM engagement. These effects were also obtained in samples from CLL patients with clinical resistance to ibrutinib and mutations at C481. NC-1 treatment further decreased baseline CD69 surface levels, completely abrogated its upregulation following IgM activation, decreased CLL cells migration toward SDF-1 and overcame stromal anti-apoptotic protection. In conclusion, our results indicate that targeting BTK using the PROTAC strategy could be a potential novel therapeutic approach for CLL.
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.