So, you’re making an enzyme inhibitor drug, some compound that’s going to go into the protein’s active site and gum up the works. You usually want these things to be potent, so you can be sure that you’ve knocked down the enzyme, so you can give people a tiny, convenient pill, and so you don’t have to make heaps of the compound to sell. How potent is potent? And how potent can you get?
Well, we’d like nanomolar. For the non-chemists in the crowd, that’s a concentration measure based on the molecular weight of the compound. If the molecular weight of the drug is 400, which is more typical than perhaps it should be, then 400 grams of the stuff is one mole. And 400 grams dissolved
in a liter of solvent to make a liter of solution would then give you a one molar (1 M) solution. (The original version of this post didn't make that important distinction, which I'll chalk up to my not being completely awake on the train ride first thing in the morning. The final volume you get on taking large amounts of things up in a given amount of solvent can vary quite a bit, but concentration is based, naturally, on what you end up with. And it’s a pretty flippin’ unusual drug substance than can be dissolved in water to that concentration, let me tell you right up front). So, four grams in a liter would be 0.01 M, or 10 millimolar, and foru hundred milligrams per liter would be a 1 millimolar solution. A one micromolar solution would be 400 micrograms (0.0004 grams) per liter, and a one nanomolar solution would be 400 nanograms (400 billionths of a gram) per liter. And that’s the concentration that we’d like to get to show good enzyme inhibition. Pretty potent, eh?
But you can do better – if you want to, which is a real question. Taking it all the way, your drug can go in and attach itself to the active site of its target by a real chemical bond. Some of those bond-forming reactions are reversible, and some of them aren’t. Even the reversible ones are a lot tighter than your usual run of inhibitor.
You can often recognize them by their time-dependent inhibition. With a normal drug, it doesn’t take all that long for things to equilibrate. If you leave the compound on for ten, twenty, thirty minutes, it usually doesn’t make a huge difference in the binding constant, because it’s already done what it can do and reached the balance it’s going to reach. But a covalent inhibitor, that’ll appear to get more and more potent the longer it stays in there, since more and more of the binding sites are being wiped out. (One test for reversibility after seeing that behavior is to let the protein equilibrate with fresh blank buffer solution for a while, to see if its activity ever comes back). You can get into hair-splitting arguments if your compound binds so tightly that it might as well be covalent; at some point they're functionally equivalent.
There are several drugs that do this kind of thing, but they’re an interesting lot. You have the penicillins and their kin – that’s what that weirdo four-membered lactam ring is doing, spring-loaded for trouble once it gets into the enzyme. The exact same trick is used in Alli (orlistat), the pancreatic lipase inhibitor. And there are some oncology drugs that covalently attach to their targets (and, in some cases, to everything else they hit, too). But you’ll notice that there’s a bias toward compounds that hit bacterial enzymes (instead of circulating human ones), don’t get out of the gut, or are toxic and used as a last resort.
Those classes don’t cover all the covalent drugs, but there’s enough of that sort of thing to make people nervous. If your compound has some sort of red-hot functional group on it, like some of those nasty older cancer compounds, you’re surely going to mess up a lot of other proteins that you would rather have left alone. And what happens to the target protein after you’ve stapled your drug to it, anyway? One fear has been that it might present enough of a different appearance to set off an immune response, and you don’t want that, either.
But covalent inhibition is actually a part of normal biochemistry. If you had a compound with a not-so-lively group, one that only reacted with the protein when it got right into the right spot – well, that might be selective, and worth a look. The Cravatt lab at Scripps has been looking into what kinds of functional groups react with various proteins, and as we get a better handle on this sort of thing, covalency could make a comeback. Some people maintain that it never left!