Imagine a drug molecule, and imagine it's a really good one. That is, it's made it out of the gut just fine, out into the bloodstream, and it's even slipped in through the membrane of the targeted cells. Now what?
Well, "cells are gels", as Arthur Kornberg used to say, and he was right. There's not a lot of bulk water sloshing around in there. It's all stuck to and sliding around with enzymes, structural proteins, carbohydrates, and the like, and that's what any drug molecule has to be able to do as well. And there's no particular reason for most of them to go anywhere particular inside the cell, once they're inside. They just diffuse around until they hit their targets, to which they stick (which is something they'd better do).
What if things didn't work this way? What if you could micro-inject your drug right into a particular cell compartment, or have it target a particular cell structure, instead of having to mist it all over the place? We now have a good answer to that question, but how much good it's going to do us drug discoverers is another thing entirely.
I'm referring to this paper from JACS, from a group at the University of Tokyo. They're targeting the important signaling enzyme PI3K. That's downstream of a lot of things, and in this case they used the PDGFR receptor in the cells, and a phosphorylated peptide that's a known ligand. To make the peptide go where they wanted, though, they further engineered both the ligand and the cells. The cells got modified by expression of dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR) in their plasma membranes, and the peptide ligand was conjugated to trimethoprim (TMP). TMP has a very strong association with DHFR, so this system was being used as an artificial targeting method. (It's as if the cell had been built up with hook-bearing Velcro on the inside of its plasma membrane, and the PI3K ligand was attached to a strip of the fuzzy side). Then to see what was going on, they also attached a fluorescent ligand to the peptide ligand as well.
Of course, this ligand-TMP-fluorescent fusion beast wasn't the best candidate for getting into a cell on its own, so the team microinjected it. And the results were dramatic. Normally, stimulating the PDGFR receptor in these cells led to downstream signaling in less than one minute. In cells that didn't have the DHFR engineered into their membranes, the fluorescent ligand could be seen diffusing through the whole cytosol, and giving a very weak PDGFR response. But in the cells with the targeting system built in, the ligand immediately seemed to stick to the inside of the plasma membrane, as planned, and a very robust, quick response was seen.
The paper details a number of control experiments that I'm not going into here, and I invite the curious to read the whole thing. I'm convinced, though, that the authors are seeing what they hoped to see. In other words, ligands which aren't worth much when they have to diffuse around on their own can be real tigers when they're dragged directly to their site of action. It makes sense that this would be true, but it's nice to see it demonstrated for real. I'll quote the last paragraph of the paper, though, because that's where I have some misgivings:
In summary, we have demonstrated that it is feasible to rapidly and efficiently activate an endogenous signaling pathway by placing a synthetic ligand at a specific location within a cell. The strategy should be applicable to other endogenous proteins and pathways through the choice of appropriate ligand molecules. More significantly, this proof-of-principle study highlights the importance of controlling the subcellular locales of molecules in the design of new synthetic modulators of intracellular biological events. There might be a number of compounds (not only activators but also inhibitors) that have been dismissed but may acquire potent biological activities when they are endowed with subcellular-targeting functions. Our next challenge is to develop cell-permeable carriers capable of delivering cargo ligands to specifically defined regions or organelles inside cells.
Where they lost me was in pointing out how important this is in designing new compounds. The problem is, these are very artificial, highly engineered cells. Everything's been set up to make them do just what you want them to do. If you don't cause them to express boatloads of DHFR in their membrane, nothing works. So what lessons does this have for a drug discovery guy like me? I'm not targeting cells that have been striped with convenient Velco patches.
And even if I find something endogenous that I can use, I can't make molecules that have to be delivered through the cell membrane by microinjection. You can see from the last sentence, though, that the authors realize that part as well. But that "next challenge" they speak of is more than enough to keep them occupied for the rest of their working lives. These kinds of experiments are important - they teach us a lot about cell biology, and there's sure a lot more of that to be learned. But the cells won't give up their secrets without a fight.