Small Molecules Engage Hot Spots through Cooperative Binding To Inhibit a Tight Protein–Protein Interaction

Protein–protein interactions drive every aspect of cell signaling, yet only a few small-molecule inhibitors of these interactions exist. Despite our ability to identify critical residues known as hot spots, little is known about how to effectively engage them to disrupt protein–protein interactions. Here, we take advantage of the ease of preparation and stability of pyrrolinone 1, a small-molecule inhibitor of the tight interaction between the urokinase receptor (uPAR) and its binding partner, the urokinase-type plasminogen activator uPA, to synthesize more than 40 derivatives and explore their effect on the protein–protein interaction. We report the crystal structure of uPAR bound to previously discovered pyrazole 3 and to pyrrolinone 12. While both 3 and 12 bind to uPAR and compete with a fluorescently labeled peptide probe, only 12 and its derivatives inhibit the full uPAR·uPA interaction. Compounds 3 and 12 mimic and engage different hot-spot residues on uPA and uPAR, respectively. Interestingly, 12 is involved in a π–cation interaction with Arg-53, which is not considered a hot spot. Explicit-solvent molecular dynamics simulations reveal that 3 and 12 exhibit dramatically different correlations of motion with residues on uPAR. Free energy calculations for the wild-type and mutant uPAR bound to uPA or 12 show that Arg-53 interacts with uPA or with 12 in a highly cooperative manner, thereby altering the contributions of hot spots to uPAR binding. The direct engagement of peripheral residues not considered hot spots through π–cation or salt-bridge interactions could provide new opportunities for enhanced small-molecule engagement of hot spots to disrupt challenging protein–protein interactions.