The biggest utility of NMR spectroscopy in drug discovery is in assessing three things; whether a particular ligand binds to a protein, what site on the protein it binds, and what parts of the ligand interact with the protein. Over the last few years a powerful technique named ‘SAR by NMR’ has emerged which is now widely used in ligand screening. In this technique, changes in the resonances of ligand and protein protons are observed to pinpoint the ligand binding site and corresponding residues. Generally when a ligand binds to a protein, both its and the protein’s rotational correlation time decreases; the result is a broadening of signals in the spectrum which can be used to detect ligand binding. One of the most effective methods in this general area is Saturation Transfer Difference (STD) spectroscopy. As the name indicates, it hinges on the transfer of magnetization between protein and ligand; the resulting decrease in intensity of ligand signals can provide valuable information about proximity of ligand protons with specific protein residues.
But these kinds of techniques suffer from some drawbacks. One straightforward drawback is that signals from protein and ligand may simply overlap. Secondly, the broadening may be so much as to virtually make the signals disappear. Thirdly from a practical perspective, it is hard to get sufficient amounts of N15-labeled protein (usually obtained by growing bacteria on a N15-rich source and then purifying the proteins of interest).
To circumvent some of these problems, a team at Abbott Laboratories has come up with a neat and relatively simple method which they call ‘labeled ligand displacement’. The method involves synthesizing a protein-binding probe that has been selectively labeled with C13. Protein binding broadens and diminishes the signals of this probe. However, when a high-affinity ligand is then added, it displaces the probe and we get recovery of the C13 signals. The authors illustrate this paradigm with several proteins of pharmaceutical interest, including heat-shock protein and carbonic anhydrase.
The method is relatively simple. For one thing, using a commercially available C13-labeled building block for synthesizing a ligand is easier than obtaining a N15-labeled protein. The biggest merit of the method though is the fact that it hinges on C13 signals very specific to the probe; thus there is no complicating overlap of signals. And finally, the ligand seems to be general enough to be applied to any protein. Only time will tell how much it is utilized, but for now it seems like a neat addition to the arsenal of NMR methods for studying protein-ligand interactions.
Swann, S., Song, D., Sun, C., Hajduk, P., & Petros, A. (2010). Labeled Ligand Displacement: Extending NMR-Based Screening of Protein Targets ACS Medicinal Chemistry Letters, 1 (6), 295-299 DOI: 10.1021/ml1000849