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Accelerating PROTAC drug discovery: Establishing a relationship between ubiquitination and target protein degradation

Curator: Stephen J. Williams, Ph.D.

PROTACs have been explored in multiple disease fields with focus on only few ligases like cereblon (CRBN), Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL), IAP and MDM2. Cancer targets like androgen receptor, estrogen receptor, BTK, BCL2, CDK8 and c-MET [[6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11]] have been successfully targeted using PROTACs. A variety of BET family (BRD2, BRD3, and BRD4)- PROTACs were designed using multiple ligases; MDM2-based BRD4 PROTAC [12], CRBN based dBET1 [13] and BETd-24-6 [14] for triple-negative breast cancer, enhanced membrane permeable dBET6 [15], and dBET57 PROTAC [16]. PROTACs for Hepatitis c virus (HCV) protease, IRAK4 and Tau [[17], [18], [19]] have been explored for viral, immune and neurodegenerative diseases, respectively. Currently, the PROTAC field expansion to vast undruggable proteome is hindered due to narrow focus on select E3 ligases. Lack of reliable tools to rapidly evaluate PROTACs based on new ligases is hindering the progress. Screening platforms designed must be physiologically relevant and represent true PROTAC cellular function, i.e., PROTAC-mediated target ubiquitination and degradation.

In the current study, we employ TUBEs as affinity capture reagents to monitor PROTAC-induced poly-ubiquitination and degradation as a measure of potency. We established and validated proof-of-concept cell-based assays in a 96-well format using PROTACS for three therapeutic targets BET family proteins, kinases, and KRAS. To our knowledge, the proposed PROTAC assays are first of its kind that can simultaneously 1) detect ubiquitination of endogenous, native protein targets, 2) evaluate the potency of PROTACs, and 3) establish a link between the UPS and protein degradation. Using these TUBE assays, we established rank order potencies between four BET family PROTACs dBET1, dBET6, BETd246 and dBET57 based on peak ubiquitination signals (“UbMax”) of the target protein. TUBE assay was successful in demonstrating promiscuous kinase PROTACs efficiency to degrade Aurora Kinase A at sub-nanomolar concentrations within 1 h. A comparative study to identify changes in the ubiquitination and degradation profile of KRAS G12C PROTACs recruiting two E3 ligases (CRBN and VHL). All of the ubiquitination and degradation profiles obtained from TUBE based assays correlate well with traditional low throughput immunoblotting. Significant correlation between DC50 obtained from protein degradation in western blotting and UbMax values demonstrates our proposed assays can aid in high-throughput screening and drastically eliminate artifacts to overcome bottlenecks in PROTAC drug discovery.

To successfully set up HTS screening with novel PROTACs without pre-existing knowledge, we recommend the following steps. 1. Identify a model PROTAC that can potentially demonstrate activity based on knowledge in PROTAC design or in vitro binding studies. 2. Perform a time course study with 2–3 doses of the model PROTAC based on affinities of the ligands selected. 3. Monitor ubiquitination and degradation profiles using plate-based assay and identify time point that demonstrates UbMax. 4. Perform a dose response at selected time point with a library of PROTACs to establish rank order potency.

INTRODUCTION

Ubiquitination is a major regulatory mechanism to maintain cellular protein homeostasis by marking proteins for proteasomal-mediated degradation [1]. Given ubiquitin’s role in a variety of pathologies, the idea of targeting the Ubiquitin Proteasome System (UPS) is at the forefront of drug discovery [2]. “Event-driven” protein degradation using the cell’s own UPS is a promising technology for addressing the “undruggable” proteome [3]. Targeted protein degradation (TPD) has emerged as a new paradigm and promising therapeutic option to selectively attack previously intractable drug targets using PROteolytic TArgeting Chimeras (PROTACs) [4]. PROTACs are heterobifunctional molecules with a distinct ligand that targets a specific E3 ligase which is tethered to another ligand specific for the target protein using an optimized chemical linker. A functional PROTAC induces a ternary E3-PROTAC-target complex, resulting in poly-ubiquitination and subsequent controlled protein degradation [5]. Ability to function at sub-stoichiometric levels for efficient degradation, a significant advantage over traditional small molecules.

PROTACs have been explored in multiple disease fields with focus on only few ligases like cereblon (CRBN), Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL), IAP and MDM2. Cancer targets like androgen receptorestrogen receptor, BTK, BCL2, CDK8 and c-MET [[6][7][8][9][10][11]] have been successfully targeted using PROTACs. A variety of BET family (BRD2, BRD3, and BRD4)- PROTACs were designed using multiple ligases; MDM2-based BRD4 PROTAC [12], CRBN based dBET1 [13] and BETd-24-6 [14] for triple-negative breast cancer, enhanced membrane permeable dBET6 [15], and dBET57 PROTAC [16]. PROTACs for Hepatitis c virus (HCV) proteaseIRAK4 and Tau [[17][18][19]] have been explored for viral, immune and neurodegenerative diseases, respectively. Currently, the PROTAC field expansion to vast undruggable proteome is hindered due to narrow focus on select E3 ligases. Lack of reliable tools to rapidly evaluate PROTACs based on new ligases is hindering the progress. Screening platforms designed must be physiologically relevant and represent true PROTAC cellular function, i.e., PROTAC-mediated target ubiquitination and degradation.

Cellular PROTAC screening is traditionally performed using cell lines harboring reporter genes and/or Western blotting. While Western blotting is easy to perform, they are low throughput, semi-quantitative and lack sensitivity. While reporter gene assays address some of the issues, they are challenged by reporter tags having internal lysines leading to artifacts. Currently, no approaches are available that can identify true PROTAC effects such as target ubiquitination and proteasome-mediated degradation simultaneously. High affinity ubiquitin capture reagents like TUBEs [20] (tandem ubiquitin binding entities), are engineered ubiquitin binding domains (UBDs) that allow for detection of ultralow levels of polyubiquitinated proteins under native conditions with affinities as low as 1 nM. The versatility and selectivity of TUBEs makes them superior to antibodies, and they also offer chain-selectivity (-K48, -K63, or linear) [21]. High throughput assays that can report the efficacy of multiple PROTACs simultaneously by monitoring PROTAC mediated ubiquitination can help establish rank order potency and guide chemists in developing meaningful structure activity relationships (SAR) rapidly.

In the current study, we employ TUBEs as affinity capture reagents to monitor PROTAC-induced poly-ubiquitination and degradation as a measure of potency. We established and validated proof-of-concept cell-based assays in a 96-well format using PROTACS for three therapeutic targets BET family proteins, kinases, and KRAS. To our knowledge, the proposed PROTAC assays are first of its kind that can simultaneously 1) detect ubiquitination of endogenous, native protein targets, 2) evaluate the potency of PROTACs, and 3) establish a link between the UPS and protein degradation. Using these TUBE assays, we established rank order potencies between four BET family PROTACs dBET1, dBET6, BETd246 and dBET57 based on peak ubiquitination signals (“UbMax”) of the target protein. TUBE assay was successful in demonstrating promiscuous kinase PROTACs efficiency to degrade Aurora Kinase A at sub-nanomolar concentrations within 1 h. A comparative study to identify changes in the ubiquitination and degradation profile of KRAS G12C PROTACs recruiting two E3 ligases (CRBN and VHL). All of the ubiquitination and degradation profiles obtained from TUBE based assays correlate well with traditional low throughput immunoblotting. Significant correlation between DC50 obtained from protein degradation in western blotting and UbMax values demonstrates our proposed assays can aid in high-throughput screening and drastically eliminate artifacts to overcome bottlenecks in PROTAC drug discovery.

Fig. 1. Schematic representation of TUBE assay to monitor PROTAC mediated cellular ubiquitination of target proteins.
Fig. 2. TUBE based assay screening of PROTACs: Jurkat cell lysates were treated with BRD3-specific PROTACs A) dBET1, B) dBET6, C) BETd24-6, and D) dBET57. Polyubiquitination profiles and Ubmax of BRD3 for each PROTAC were represented as relative CL intensity. Relative CL intensities were calculated by dividing raw CL signals from a given PROTAC dose over DMSO treated samples. Error bars represent standard deviations, n = 3.
Fig. 3. PROTAC mediated degradation of bromodomain proteins analyzed by anti-BRD3 western blotting. Dose response of PROTACs dBET1, dBET6, Betd-24-6 and dBET57 at 45 min in Jurkat cells demonstrates degradation of BRD3, Acting as loading control.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fig. 4. PROTAC mediated ubiquitination and degradation of AURKA in K562 cells. (A) Time course study to evaluate intracellular ubiquitination and degradation. (B) Western blot analysis of time course study: degradation kinetics (C) A dose response study to evaluate DC50 of the promiscuous kinase PROTAC in K562 cells. (D) Western blot analysis of dose response study to monitor degradation, GAPDH as loading control. Error bars represent standard deviation, n = 3.

SOURCE

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006291X22011792

Other articles of PROTACs in this Open Access Journal Include

The Vibrant Philly Biotech Scene: Proteovant Therapeutics Using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to Develop PROTACs

The Map of human proteins drawn by artificial intelligence and PROTAC (proteolysis targeting chimeras) Technology for Drug Discovery

Live Conference Coverage AACR 2020 in Real Time: Monday June 22, 2020 Late Day Sessions

From High-Throughput Assay to Systems Biology: New Tools for Drug Discovery

 

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