Background: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) and Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML) account for nearly 45% of all childhood cancer. Current therapy for acute leukemia results in significant morbidity and late complications in children. Therefore, more effective and less toxic therapies to treat leukemia are needed. Previous work in our laboratory has identified CREB (cAMP Response Element Binding Protein), a transcription factor that promotes cell proliferation and survival in acute leukemia, is overexpressed in primary ALL and AML cells and is a potential target for therapy. We have investigated small molecules and peptides to inhibit the critical interaction between the phosphorylated KID (Kinase-Inducible) domain of CREB and the KIX (KID-interacting) domain of the coactivator CBP (CREB Binding Protein).

Methods: We assessed a library of previously untested alpha-mimetic compounds from ChemDiv designed to mimic interactions between α-helices and protein surfaces for predicted interaction with a shallow hydrophobic groove on the interaction surface of KIX. We interrogated the 24,737 compounds in the library using rigid-receptor ligand docking, followed by induced-fit ligand docking of the top compounds using two different software, MOE and Schrodinger's Bioluminate. The top 50 binding poses from each software's rankings were combined to yield 87 candidate alpha-mimetic molecule inhibitors.

In addition to our screen of small molecules, we have designed peptide inhibitors that closely mimic the αB helix of pKID. We investigated two methods to enhance the stability and cell-penetrating ability of our peptides: hydrocarbon stapling and the utilization of a rigid scaffold from the scorpion toxin peptide BmBKTtx1. Based on the calculated binding scores and locations, the most promising chimeric peptide designs were further investigated for binding stability using 500 nanosecond molecular dynamics (MD) simulations modeling their interaction with KIX.

Results: The binding poses of the final set of small molecules were visually inspected for occupation of key hotspots on the pKID:KIX interaction surface, including the location of the phosphorylation sight of KID. Of the 87 molecules and their binding poses, only 21 of them (24%) obstructed fewer than two of the three hotspots chosen for the analysis. Moreover, 80 of the molecules (92%) extended into the hydrophobic pocket, the most critical hotspot. The multi-residue construction of this pocket likely contributed to the high similarity in interaction fingerprint between these molecules and pKID; occupation of this pocket can serve as a good indicator of strong ligand binding to KIX in future assays.

The most-promising peptide designs using the scorpion toxin scaffold were assessed with MD simulations and compared to a control peptide comprised primarily of the αB helix of pKID. The chimeric peptides showed increased binding stability over the control peptide with an average RMSD of 6.8Å vs. 12.5Å, illustrating the benefits of the stability afforded by the scorpion scaffold design. Several of the hydrocarbon stapled peptides were tested in vitro using fluorescence polarization (FP) assay developed by our lab (Chae et al. Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters, 2019) and in AML HL-60 and KG-1 cells and were shown to have growth inhibitory effects by Cell-Titer Glo Assays.

Discussion: These small molecules and scorpion toxin-derived peptides represent novel candidate inhibitors of the pKID:KIX interaction implicated in leukemia. Based on promising results from our in silico analyses of these inhibitors, we have obtained ten structurally diverse alpha-mimetic small molecules and three chimeric peptides and aim to test their efficacy in vitro using the FP assay. Furthermore, we will obtain high resolution cryo-EM structures of successful compounds and peptides bound to the KIX domain using a double-shell protein scaffold (Zhang et al. ACS Central Science, 2022), and use these structures for further refinement of the inhibitors. The development of new inhibitors for the pKID:KIX interaction promises to reveal insights into the structural relationship between the two domains and the basis for effective, targeted leukemia therapeutics.

No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

Sign in via your Institution