Field of Science

Discodermolide unraveled?

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Drugs affecting microtubule dynamics are familiar chemical players in med chem by now. First came Taxol, then the epothilones, then discodermolide, and the list continues with peluroside, eleutherobin, and dictyostatin to name a few of the better known entities.

Like it is for other drugs, one of the major questions asked about these molecules is how they bind to their target. Taxol and epothilone have been subjected to immense SAR and analog preparation by some of the hard hitters in the synthetic arena. Their binding conformations have been postulated with reasonable confidence. The common pharmacophore hypothesis, tempting but misleading and not true in this case, has been convincingly questioned. But for discodermolide, the binding conformation is not yet known. Now, groups from Spain and the UK have applied the "INPHARMA" NMR methodology to probe the interaction of disco with tubulin.

Admittedly, INPHARMA is a nifty technique- here is the original reference. It relies on magnetization transfer to a protein proton from a proton of a molecule that binds in the active site. This magnetization is then again transfered from the protein proton to a proton of another molecule that binds to the same site. For this to happen, the rate constants for binding have to be much smaller than the relaxation times for the protons.
Thus, the magnetization transfer sequence for two ligands A and B that bind to the same active site is

H(A)------>Protein proton------->H(B)

Naturally, this happens if both H(A) and H(B) are close to the same protein proton. Thus you see cross peaks between two protons A and B of two different ligands, mediated by a protein proton. Information from many such cross peaks allows us to map the protein protons to the ligand protons that are near them. In the end, not only does a picture emerge of the binding conformation of both ligands separately, but this information also allows us to suggest a common pharmacophore for the two ligands. And Paterson has now used this technique for disco and epothilone.

I am sure the technique has to be done carefully and that it was, and I also don't doubt the postulated conformation of disco. Most of the paper is really interesting and it's a neat study. But what concerns me is the fact that the end result, the binding conformation of disco can be mapped onto the x-ray conformation of disco proposed earlier, as well as the solution conformation of dictyostatin. Where my mind snags is in accepting this conclusion, because a single or even one dominant conformation for a flexible molecule derived in solution is unrealistic. It's what is called a 'virtual' solution. It's virtual simply because it's an average conformation. And since the average is a juxtaposition of all possible individual conformations, it simply does not exist in solution by itself. It's like saying that the contiguous structure of fan blades seen when a fan is moving very fast actually exists. It does not, because it is an average, and the resolution time of our eye is not short enough to capture individual positions of the fan blades.

So I wonder how the binding conformation of disco could be mapped onto the conformations of one x-ray conformation and one single dominant conformation in solution. Now I am sure there is more to this story, and I am still exploring the paper, but for commonsense reasons, a little red light in my brain always turns on (or at least should turn on) when a single or dominant conformation for a highly flexible molecule in solution is postulated.

More cogitations to come soon.


  1. hey , kan u give me an xample where modelling has been used to really, i mean , really PREDIKT SAR rather than giving an xplanation for observed data..

  2. Sure.

    Ganesh, T.; Guza, R. C.; Bane, S.; Ravindra, R.; Shanker, N.; Lakdawala, A. S.; Snyder, J. P.; Kingston, D. G. The bioactive Taxol conformation on beta-tubulin: experimental evidence from highly active constrained analogs. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2004, 101, 10006-11.

    Tang, S. B.; Yang, C.; Brodie, P.; Bane, S.; Ravindra, R.; Sharma, S.; Jiang, Y.; Snyder, J. P.; Kingston, D. G. I. Bridging converts a noncytotoxic nor-paclitaxel derivative to a cytotoxic analogue by constraining it to the T-Taxol conformation. Organic Letters 2006, 8, 3983-3986.

    The above examples are also relevant to this discodermolide post because the same debate occurred for Taxol/tubulin. In the above studies, a previously published model that had been built for paxclitaxel analogs binding to tubulin was used to develop constrained analogs with greater activity.

    Snyder, J. P.; Nettles, J. H.; Cornett, B.; Downing, K. H.; Nogales, E. The binding conformation of Taxol in beta-tubulin: a model based on electron crystallographic density. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2001, 98, 5312-6.

    At that time, increased activity was predicted for taxanes with stabilizing linkers that could hold the active “T” conformation within the confines of the site model based on electron crystallography.

    I think that the question raise by the original blog is “ if the in-pharma ‘bound’ conformation is ‘real’, why does it look like the average from solution?”

    Perhaps, the experimental conditions required to get the tNOE signal – non microtubule polymers – present a low affinity site which doesn’t significantly stabilize the small molecule conformation relative to the free state.

    A transient binding site has been recently shown with covalent linking that could support this hypothesis.

    Buey, R. M.; Calvo, E.; Barasoain, I.; Pineda, O.; Edler, M. C.; Matesanz, R.; Cerezo, G.; Vanderwal, C. D.; Day, B. W.; Sorensen, E. J.; Lopez, J. A.; Andreu, J. M.; Hamel, E.; Diaz, J. F. Cyclostreptin binds covalently to microtubule pores and lumenal taxoid binding sites. Nat Chem Biol 2007, 3, 117-25.


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