The Surprising Landscape of CDK Inhibitor Selectivity in Live Cells

Cyclin-dependent kinases (CDKs) are promising therapeutic targets in cancer and are currently among the most intensely studied enzymes in drug discovery. The FDA has recently approved three drugs for breast cancer that target members of this kinase subfamily, fueling interest in the entire family. Although broad efforts in drug discovery have produced many CDK inhibitors (CDKIs), few have been characterized in living cells. So just how potent are these compounds in a cellular environment? Are these compounds selective for their intended CDK target, or do they bind many similar kinases in cells? To address these questions, teams at the Structural Genomics Consortium and Promega used the NanoBRET™ Target Engagement technology to uncover surprising patterns of selectivity for touted CDKIs and abandoned clinical leads (1). The results offer exciting opportunities for repurposing some inhibitors as selective chemical probes for lesser-studied CDK family members.

CDKs and CDKIs

nanobret technology for kinase target engagement

Cyclin-dependent kinases (CDKs) regulate a number of key global cellular processes, including cell cycle progression and gene transcription. As the name implies, CDK activity is tightly regulated by interactions with cyclin proteins. In humans, the CDK subfamily consists of 21 members and several are validated drivers of tumorigenesis. For example, CDKs 1, 2, 4 and 6 play a role in cell cycle progression and are validated therapeutic targets in oncology. However, the majority of the remaining CDK family is less studied. For example, some members of the CDK subfamily, such as CDKs 14–18, lack functional annotation and have unclear roles in cell physiology. Others, such as the closely related CDK8/19, are members of multiprotein complexes involved broadly in gene transcription. How these kinases function as members of such large complexes in a cellular context remains unclear, but their activity has been associated with several pathologies, including colorectal cancer. Despite their enormous therapeutic potential, our knowledge of the CDK family members remains incomplete.

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Illuminating the Function of a Dark Kinase (DCLK1) with a Selective Chemical Probe

The understudied kinome represents a major challenge as well as an exciting opportunity in drug discovery. A team of researchers lead by Nathanael Gray at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute was able to partially elucidate the function of an understudied kinase, Doublecortin-like kinase 1 (DCLK1), in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma cells (PDAC). The characterization of DCLK1 in PDAC was realized by developing a highly specific chemical probe (1). Promega NanoBRET™ Target Engagement (TE) technology enabled intracellular characterization of this chemical probe.

The Dark Kinome

NanoBRET target engagement

Comprised of over 500 proteins, the human kinome is among the broadest class of enzymes in humans and is rife with targets for small molecule therapeutics. Indeed, to date, over 50 small molecule kinase inhibitors have achieved FDA approval for use in treating cancer and inflammatory diseases, with nearly 200 kinase inhibitors in various stages of clinical evaluation (2). Moreover, broad genomic screening efforts have implicated the involvement of a large fraction of kinases in human pathologies (3). Despite such advancements, our knowledge of the kinome is limited to only a fraction of its family members (3,4). For example, currently less than 20% of human kinases are being targeted with drugs in clinical trials. Moreover, only a subset of kinases historically has garnered substantial citations in academic research journals (4). As a result, a large proportion of the human kinome lacks functional annotation; as such, these understudied or “dark” kinases remain elusive to therapeutic intervention (4).

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NanoLuc® Luciferase Powers More than Reporter Assays

Bright NanoLuc® Luciferase

NanoLuc® luciferase has been discussed many times on this blog and our web site because the enzyme is integral to studying genetic responses and protein dynamics. While NanoLuc® luciferase was first introduced as a reporter enzyme to assess promoter activity, its capabilities have expanded far beyond a genetic reporter, creating tools used to study endogeneous protein interactions, target engagement, protein degradation and more. So where did the NanoLuc® luciferase come from and how does a one enzyme power several technologies?

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Investigation of Remdesivir as a Possible Treatment for SARS-2-CoV (2019-nCoV)

Remdesivir (RDV or GS-5734) was used in the treatment of the first case of the SARS-CoV-2 (formerly 2019-nCoV ) in the United States (1). RDV is not an approved drug in any country but has been requested by a number of agencies worldwide to help combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus (2). RDV is an adenine nucleotide monophosphate analog demonstrated to inhibit Ebola virus replication (3). RDV is bioactivated to the triphosphate form within cells and acts as an alternative substrate for the replication-necessary RNA dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp). Incorporation of the analog results in early termination of the primer extension product resulting in the inhibition.

 Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. In this view, the protein particles E, S, M, and HE, also located on the outer surface of the particle, have all been labeled as well. A novel coronavirus virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019.
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Photo Credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM CDC

Why all the interest in RDV as a treatment for SARS-CoV-2 ? Much of the interest in RDV is due to a series of studies performed by collaborating groups at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (Ralph S. Baric’s lab) and Vanderbilit University Medical Center (Mark R. Denison’s lab) in collaboration with Gilead Sciences. 

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Targeted Protein Degradation: A Bright Future for Drug Discovery

targeted protein degradation and protacs

Our cells have evolved multiple mechanisms for “taking out the trash”—breaking down and disposing of cellular components that are defective, damaged or no longer required. Within a cell, these processes are balanced by the synthesis of new components, so that DNA, RNA and proteins are constantly undergoing turnover.

Proteins are degraded by two major components of the cellular machinery. The discovery of the lysosome in the mid-1950s provided considerable insight into the first of these degradation mechanisms for extracellular and cytosolic proteins. Over the next several decades, details of a second protein degradation mechanism emerged: the ubiquitin-proteasome system (UPS). Ubiquitin is a small, highly conserved polypeptide that is used to selectively tag proteins for degradation within the cell. Multiple ubiquitin tags are generally attached to a single targeted protein. This ill-fated, ubiquitinated protein is then recognized by the proteasome, a large protein complex with proteolytic activity. Ubiquitination is a multistep process, involving several specialized enzymes. The final step in the process is mediated by a family of ubiquitin ligases, known as E3.

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Popular Papers from Promega Authors

Promega is a chemistry and instrument supplier to scientists in diverse industries and research labs around the world. True. But we are more than just a supply company; we are scientists dedicated to supporting the work of other scientists. We want the science behind the technologies we develop to be both vetted and valued by the scientific community at large, which is one reason our scientists take the time to prepare and submit manuscripts to peer-reviewed journals. Here we call out some of our published research papers that were highly read in 2019. In the journal ACS Chemical Biology alone, five Promega-authored papers were among the top 10 most read papers in 2019. Here’s a quick review of the highlights from these ACS papers.

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Designing a Reporter Construct for Analyzing Gene Regulation

Bioluminescent reporter assays are an excellent choice for analyzing gene regulation because they provide higher sensitivity, wider dynamic range and better signal-to-background ratios compared to colorimetric or fluorescent assays. In a typical genetic reporter assay, cells are transfected with a vector that contains the sequence of interest cloned upstream of a reporter gene, and the reporter activity is used to determine how the target sequence influences gene expression under experimental conditions. A second control reporter encoded on the same or a different plasmid is an essential internal control. The secondary reporter is used to normalize the data and compensate for variability caused by differences in cell number, lysis efficiency, cell viability, transfection efficiency, temperature, and measurement time. 

Basic Introduction to the Strategy of Reporter Gene Assays

For genetic reporter assays, using a secondary control vector with a weak promoter like PGK or TK to ensures that the control does not interfere with activation of your primary reporter vector. Transfection of high amounts of the control plasmid or putting the control reporter under control of a strong promoter like CMV or SV40 often leads to transcriptional squelching or other interference with the experimental promoter (i.e., trans effects). Reporter assays can also be used to quantitatively evaluate microRNA activity by inserting miRNA target sites downstream or 3´ of the reporter gene. For example, the pmirGLO Dual-Luciferase miRNA Target Expression Vector is based on dual-luciferase technology, with firefly luciferase as the primary reporter to monitor mRNA regulation and Renilla luciferase as a control reporter for normalization.

Here in Technical Services we often talk with researchers who are just starting their project and looking for advice on designing their genetic reporter vector. They have questions like:

  • How much of the upstream promoter region should be included in the vector?
  • How many copies of a response element will be needed to provide a good response?
  • Does the location of the element or surrounding sequence alter gene regulation?
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NanoLuc: Tiny Tag with a Big Impact

Synthetic biology—genetically engineering an organism to do or make something useful—is the central goal of the iGEM competition each year. After teams conquer the challenge of cloning their gene, the next hurdle is demonstrating that the engineered gene is expressing the desired protein (and possibly quantifying the level of expression), which they may do using a reporter gene.

Reporters can also play a more significant role in iGEM projects when teams design their organism with reporter genes to detect and signal the presence of specific molecules, like environmental toxins or biomarkers. Three of the iGEM teams Promega sponsored this year opted to incorporate some version of NanoLuc® Luciferase into their projects.

NanoLuc® luciferase is a small monomeric enzyme (19.1kDa, 171 amino acids) based on the luciferase from the deep sea shrimp Oplophorus gracilirostris. This engineered enzyme uses a novel substrate, furimazine, to produce high-intensity, glow-type luminescence in an ATP-independent reaction. Unlike other molecules for tagging and detecting proteins, NanoLuc® luciferase is less likely to interfere with enzyme activity and affect protein production due to its small size.

NanoLuc® Luciferase has also been engineered into a structural complementation reporter system, NanoBiT® Luciferase, that contains a Large subunit (LgBiT) and two small subunit options: low affinity SmBiT and high affinity HiBiT. Together, these NanoLuc® technologies provide a bioluminescent toolbox that was used by the iGEM teams to address a diverse set of biological challenges.

Here is an overview of each team’s project and how they incorporated NanoLuc® technology.

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Choosing a Tag for Your Protein

Flow diagram for purifying HaloTag fusion proteins
Overview of the HaloTag® Mammalian Protein Purification System.

You have identified and cloned your protein of interest, but you want to explore its function. A protein fusion tag might help with your investigation. However, choosing a tag for your protein depends on what experiments you are planning. Do you want to purify the protein? Would you like to identify interacting proteins by performing pull-down assays? Are you interested in examining the endogenous biology of the protein? Here we cover the advantages and disadvantages of some protein tags to help you select the one that best suits your needs.

Affinity Tags

The most commonly used protein tags fall under the category of affinity tags. This means that the tag binds to another molecule or metal ion, making it easy to purify or pull down your protein of interest. In all cases, the tag will be fused to your protein of interest at either the amino (N) or carboxy (C) terminus by cloning into an expression vector. This protein fusion can then be expressed in cells or cell-free systems, depending on the promoter the vector contains. Continue reading “Choosing a Tag for Your Protein”

I Have My Luciferase Vector, Now What?

Choosing and Optimizing Transfection Methods

Here in Technical Services we often talk with researchers at the beginning of their project about how to carefully design and get started with their experiments. It is exciting when you have selected the Luciferase Reporter Vector(s) that will best suit your needs; you are going to make luminescent cells! But, how do you pick the best way to get the vector into your cells to express the reporter? What transfection reagent/method will work best for your cell type and experiment? Do you want to do transient (short-term) transfections, or are you going to establish a stable cell line?

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