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Mol Med. 2001 Oct;7(10):698-710.

The impact of whole genome sequence data on drug discovery--a malaria case study.

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  • 1Graduate Group in Biophysics, San Francisco General Hospital, CA, USA.



Identification and validation of a drug discovery target is a prominent step in drug development. In the post-genomic era it is possible to reevaluate the association of a gene with a specific biological function to see if a homologous gene can subsume this role. This concept has special relevance to drug discovery in human infectious diseases, like malaria. A trophozoite cysteine protease (falcipain-1) from the papain family, thought to be responsible for the degradation of erythrocyte hemoglobin, has been considered a promising target for drug discovery efforts owing to the antimalarial activity of peptide based covalent cysteine protease inhibitors. This led to the development of non-peptidic non-covalent inhibitors of falcipain-1 and their characterization as antimalarials. It is now clear from sequencing efforts that the malaria genome contains more than one cysteine protease and that falcipain-1 is not the most important contributor to hemoglobin degradation. Rather, falcipain-2 and falcipain-3 appear to account for the majority of cysteine hemoglobinase activity in the plasmodium trophozoite.


We have modeled the falcipain-2 cysteine protease from one of the major human malaria species, Plasmodium falciparum and compared it to our original work on falcipain-1. As with falcipain-1, computa-tional screening of the falcipain-2 active site was conducted using DOCK. Using structural superpositions within the protease family and evolutionary analysis of substrate specificity sites, we focused on the commonalities and the protein specific features to direct our drug discovery effort.


Since 1993, the size of the Available Chemicals Directory had increased from 55313 to 195419 unique chemical structures. For falcipain-2, eight inhibitors were identified with IC50's against the enzyme between 1 and 7 microM. Application of three of these inhibitors to infected erythrocytes cured malaria in culture, but parasite death did not correlate with food vacuole abnormalities associated with the activity of mechanistic inhibitors of cysteine proteases like the epoxide E64.


Using plasmodial falcipain proteases, we show how a protein family perspective can influence target discovery and inhibitor design. We suspect that parallel drug discovery programs where a family of targets is considered, rather than serial programs built on a single therapeutic focus, will become the dominant industrial paradigm. Economies of scale in assay development and in compound synthesis are expected owing to the functional and structural features of individual family members. One of the remaining challenges in post-genomic drug discovery is that inhibitors of one target are likely to show some activity against other family members. This lack of specificity may lead to difficulties in functional assignments and target validation as well as a complex side effect profile.

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