Drug development against viral or microbial targets is often compounded by the existence of naturally occurring polymorphisms or drug resistant mutations. In the case of Plasmodium falciparum, the etiological agent of malaria, four related and essential proteases, plasmepsin I, II, and IV and the histo-aspartyl protease (HAP), have been identified in the food vacuole of the parasite. Since all of these enzymes are involved in the hemoglobin degradation of infected victims, the simultaneous inhibition of the four enzymes can be expected to lead to a faster starvation of the parasite and to delay the onset of drug resistance, since four enzymes will need to mutate in a concerted fashion. This study describes the design of an adaptive inhibitor intended to inhibit the entire plasmepsin family. Adaptive inhibitors bind with extremely high affinity to a primary target within the family and maintain significant affinity against the remaining members. This objective is accomplished by engineering the strongest and most specific interactions of the inhibitor against conserved regions of the binding site and by accommodating target variations by means of flexible asymmetric functional groups. Using this approach, we have designed an inhibitor with subnanomolar affinity (0.5 nM) against the primary target, plasmepsin II, and with no loss or a very small loss of affinity against plasmepsin IV, I, and HAP (Ki ratios of 0.4, 7.1, and 17.7, respectively). The core of the inhibitor is defined by an allophenylnorstatine scaffold. Adaptability is provided by an asymmetric amino indanol functional group facing one of the key variable regions in the binding site. Adaptive inhibitors, which display high affinity against several variations of a primary target, are expected to play an important role in the chemotherapy of infectious diseases.
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