Medicinal chemists spend a lot of their time exploring and trying to make sense of structure-activity relationships (SARs). We vary our molecules in all kinds of ways, have the biologists run them through the assays, and then sit down to make sense of the results.
And then, like as not, we get up again after a few minutes, shaking our heads. Has anyone out there ever worked on a project where the entire SAR made sense? I’ve always considered it a triumph if even a reasonable majority of the compounds fit into an interpretable pattern. SAR development is a perfect example of things not quite working out the way that they do in textbooks.
The most common surprise when you get your results back, if that phrase “common surprise” makes any sense, is to find that you’ve pushed some trend a bit too far. Methyl was pretty good, ethyl was better, but anything larger drops dead. I don’t count that sort of thing – those are boundary conditions, for the most part, and one of the things you do in a med-chem program is establish the limits under which you can work. But there are still a number of cases where what you thought was a wall turns out to have a secret passage or two hidden in it. You can’t put any para-substituents on that ring, sure. . .unless you have a basic amine over on the other end of the molecule, and then you suddenly can.
I’d say that a lot of these get missed, because after a project’s been running a while, various SAR dogmas get propagated. There are features of the structure space that “everybody knows”, and that few people want to spend their time violating. But it’s worth devoting a small (but real) amount of effort to going back and checking some of these after the lead molecule has evolved a bit, since you can get surprised.
Some projects I’ve worked on have so many conditional clauses of this sort built into their SAR that you wonder whether there are any boundaries at all. This works, unless you have this, but if you have that over there it can be OK, although there is that other compound which didn’t. . .making sense of this stuff can just be impossible. The opposite situation, the fabled Perfectly Additive SAR, is something I’ve never encountered in person, although I’ve heard tales after the fact. That’s the closest we come to the textbooks, where you can mix and match groups and substituents any way you like, predicting as you go from the previous trends just how they’ll come out. I have to think that any time you can do this, that it has to be taking place in a fairly narrow structure space – surely we can always break any trend like this with a little imagination.
Another well-known bit of craziness is the Only Thing That Works There. You’ll have whole series of compounds that have to have a a methyl group at some position, or they’re all dead. Nothing smaller, nothing larger, nothing with a different electronic flavor: it’s methyl or death. (Or fluoro, or a thiazole, or what have you – I’ve probably seen this with methyl more than with other groups, but it can happen all over the place). A sharp SAR is certainly nothing to fear; it’s probably telling you that you really are making good close contacts with the protein target somewhere. But it can be unnerving, and sometimes there’s not a lot of room left on the ledge when you have more than one constraint like this.
Why does all this go on? Multiple binding modes, you have to think. Proteins are flexible beasts, and they've got lots of ways to react to ligands. And it's important never to forget that we can't predict their responses, at least not yet and not very well. And of course, in all this discussion, we've just been considering one target protein. When you think about the other things your molecule might be hitting in cells or in a whole animal, and that the SAR relationships for those off-target things are just as fluid and complicated as for your target, well. . .you can see why medicinal chemistry is not going away anytime soon. Or shouldn't, anyway.