PROTACs: Just the FAQs

protac drug discovery

While PROTACs might not be the topic of conversation at high society cocktail parties, or merit cover stories in glamor magazines, they’re certainly shaking up the drug discovery industry. PROTAC® degraders, together with related compounds like molecular glues and LYTACs, are the basic tools for a targeted protein degradation strategy. Research in this field is advancing rapidly, enabling the development of therapies for disease targets disease targets previously thought to be “undruggable”. This blog post provides an overview of PROTACs based on frequently asked questions.

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Using Structural Computation Models to Predict Productive PROTAC Ternary Complexes

With use and time things wear out. Tires get worn on a car, and you have the old tires removed, recycled, and replaced with new ones. Sometimes a part or piece of something isn’t made properly. For instance, if you are assembling a piece of furniture and you find a screw with no threads, you throw it out and get a screw that was made properly. The same thing holds true for cells. Components wear out (like tires) or get improperly made (a screw with no threads), or they simply have a limited lifetime so that they are available in the cell only when needed. These used and worn components need to be removed from the cell. One system that allows cells to recycle components and remove old or improperly functioning proteins is the Ubiquitin-Proteasome System (UPS).  The UPS system relies on a series of small peptide tags, ubiquitin, to mark a protein for degradation. Researchers are now harnessing the UPS to target aberrant proteins in diseased cells through PROteolysis TArgeting Chimeras or PROTACs. PROTACs hold promise as highly efficacious therapeutics that can be directed to eliminate only a single protein. To take full advantage of the power of PROTACs, researchers need to understand the molecular underpinnings that are responsible for successful protein degradation. Here we review a paper that seeks to develop a computer model for predicting whether PROTAC ternary complex formation leads to ubiquitination and successful degradation of a target protein.

Diagram of ubiquitination of a protein. ThePROTAC ternary complex is formed the E2/E3 complex, PROTAC and target protein are bound simultaneously
Proteins are targeted for degradation by the proteasome. A small chain of ubiquitin peptides (Ub) is added to available lysine residues of the target protein through the actions of three enzymes: E1, ubiquitin-activating enzyme; E2, ubiquitin-conjugating enzyme; and E3 ubiquitin ligase. After the addition of the Ub chain, the proteasome is recruited and the protein degraded.

Addressing the Intractable Target

Research to understand diseases including cancers, neurodegeneration, and auto-immune conditions has revealed that in many disease states, affected cells produce growth factors or enzymes that are constitutively active (“always on”). These proteins are targets for small molecule inhibitors that bind specific sites preventing the constitutive activity or signaling. More recently, biologics, or protein-based therapeutics, including monoclonal antibodies (mAb), have been developed that can bind and block inappropriate signaling pathways, especially those that allow cancer cells to escape immune system surveillance.

Unfortunately, up to 85% of targets have proven intractable to small molecule inhibitors, or they are not suitable for a biologics approach. Oftentimes, the target protein doesn’t have a great place to bind a small molecule, so even though inhibitors might exist they cannot bind well enough to be effective. Or, as in the case of many cancers, the diseased cell manages to overcome the effect of the inhibitor by overexpressing the target. Still other aberrant proteins associated with diseases haven’t gained function to cause a disease; they have instead, lost function, so designing an inhibitor of the protein is not a workable strategy.  Enter the PROTAC.

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GPCRs and PROTACs: New Approaches for Designing More Effective Drug Candidates

NanoBRET target engagement assay

G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) comprise a large group of cell surface receptors, characterized by the unique structural property of crossing the cell membrane seven times. They respond to a diverse group of signaling molecules, such as peptides, neurotransmitters, cytokines, hormones and other small molecules (1). Upon activation, GPCRs interact with GTP-binding (G) proteins and arrestins to regulate a wide variety of signaling pathways. This broad range of functions makes GPCRs attractive targets for drug discovery. The importance of GPCR research was highlighted in 2012, with the Nobel Prize in chemistry being awarded to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka “for studies of G-protein–coupled receptors”.

Based on structure and function, GPCRs are categorized into six classes, A–F. The class A GPCRs, or rhodopsin-like receptors, have been studied extensively due to their association with many types of diseases (2). Within the class A GPCRs is a group that share a highly conserved structural motif (3) and respond to chemokines—small “chemotactic cytokines” that stimulate cell migration, especially that of white blood cells (4). A subfamily of class A GPCRs respond to chemokines that have two cysteine residues near the N-terminus, known as CC chemokines. GPCRs activated by CC chemokines are called CC chemokine receptors or CCRs, and these interactions have been implicated in both pro- and anti-cancer pathways (5).

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RAS-Targeted Drug Discovery: From Challenge to Opportunity

cancer cell, ras-targeted drug discovery

In 1963, Jennifer Harvey was studying Moloney murine leukemia virus (MMLV) at the cancer research department of the London Hospital Research Laboratories. After routine transfers of plasma from MMLV-infected rats to mice, she made an unusual discovery. In addition to the expected leukemia, the mice that received the plasma developed solid tumors (soft-tissue sarcomas), primarily in the spleen (1). A few years later, Werner Kirsten at the University of Chicago observed similar results working with mouse erythroblastosis virus (MEV) (2).

Subsequent research, with the advent of genome sequencing, showed that a cellular rat gene had been incorporated into the viral genome in both cases (3). These genomic sequences contained a mutation later shown to be responsible for the development of sarcomas, and the word “oncogene” became a common part of the vocabulary in cancer publications during the early 1980s (4). Harvey’s discovery led to the naming of the corresponding rat sarcoma oncogene as HRAS, while Kirsten’s related oncogene was named KRAS. Several laboratories, working independently, cloned the human homolog of the viral HRAS gene in 1982 (3). The human KRAS gene was cloned shortly thereafter, as well as a third RAS gene, named NRAS (3). Additional studies showed that a single point mutation in each of these genes led to oncogenic activation, and they have been popular targets for anticancer drug discovery efforts ever since.

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Paving New Ways for Drug Discovery & Development: Targeted Protein Degradation

The Dana-Farber Targeted Protein Degradation Webinar Series discusses new discoveries and modalities in protein degradation.

In this webinar, Senior Research Scientist, Dr. Danette Daniels, focuses primarily on proteolysis-targeting chimeras, or PROTACs. A variety of topics are covered including the design, potency, and efficacy of PROTACs in targeted protein degradation. Watch the video below to learn more about how PROTACs are shifting perspectives through fascinating research and discoveries in targeted protein degradation.

Learn more about targeted protein degradation and PROTACS here.

Designing BET(ter) Inhibitors to Guide Therapy for Cancer and Inflammatory Diseases

bet proteins brd nanoluc

Transcriptional activation of genes within the nucleus of eukaryotic cells occurs by a variety of mechanisms. Typically, these mechanisms rely on the interaction of regulatory proteins (transcriptional activators or repressors) with specific DNA sequences that control gene expression. Upon DNA binding, regulatory proteins also interact with other proteins that are part of the RNA polymerase II transcriptional complex.

One type of transcriptional activation relies on inducing a conformational change in chromatin, the DNA-protein complex that makes up each chromosome within a cell. In a broad sense, “extended” or loosely wound chromatin is more accessible to transcription factors and can signify an actively transcribed gene. In contrast, “condensed” chromatin hinders access to transcription factors and is characteristic of a transcriptionally inactive state. Acetylation of lysine residues in histones—the primary constituents of the chromatin backbone—results in opening up the chromatin and consequent gene activation. Disruption of histone acetylation pathways is implicated in many types of cancer (1).

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PROTACs, PHOTACs and LYTACs: How to Target a Protein for Degradation

PROTACs for Targeted Protein Degradation
An illustration of PROTAC structure and the proteins it binds.

Targeting a single protein and making it disappear from the cell is quite the magic trick, and there are various molecular tools available for this task. You can use RNA interference, which prevents a protein from being made, inhibitors that bind the protein, rendering it unavailable for use or even gene editing tools like CRISPR that can remove it from the genome. But did you know that you can target an existing protein for destruction, using the cell’s own garbage disposal system to degrade the protein? All you need is a molecule that can connect your protein to one with a role in cellular protein degradation and your protein can be destroyed.

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