Highly recurrent TERT (the catalytic subunit of telomerase) promoter mutations in human familial and sporadic melanoma lead to a 2-4 fold increase in TERT transcription and telomerase activation, making telomerase an attractive target for melanoma cancer therapies. The development of effective small-molecule inhibitors of telomerase has been hindered by the lack of high-resolution structural data on telomerase. We used the TERT structure determined by X-ray crystallography to screen >500,000 compounds by in silico methods. This approach allowed us to identify a set of small molecules containing a similar scaffold that inhibited the enzymatic activity of telomerase. We have obtained the X-ray co-crystal structure of TERT bound to one of these compounds, revealing a novel and unexpected allosteric binding site, namely the FVYL pocket, located on the surface of the TERT thumb domain. This is the first-ever ligand-TERT co-crystal structure that has been solved to date. Using biochemical assays, we showed that the FVYL pocket binds telomerase RNA (TER), and therefore our initial lead acts by inhibiting the TERT ? TER association and telomerase RNP assembly. We have also found compounds that can selectively inhibit the growth of telomerase-positive human melanoma cell lines, but show little growth inhibition of telomerase negative cancer and non-transformed cells in culture. The previous telomerase inhibitor BIBR-1532 was also examined. We determined the BIBR-1532- TERT co-crystal structure, showing that it binds to the same general area, but in a slightly different manner, as do the ligands that we identified by computational prescreening. We also found that BIBR-1532 had substantially less efficacy with a delayed action at killing melanoma cells than does the top hit from our own studies.
The aims of this proposal are to (A) use structure-based design methods combined with medicinal chemistry to improve potency for the inhibition of telomerase, (B) evaluate the biochemical activity and specificity for telomerase while investigating the cellular pathways perturbed on telomerase inhibition, and (C) probe the in vivo melanoma oncolytic activity of the telomerase inhibitors. We are uniquely positioned to accomplish the work described because of our ability to iteratively obtain additional ligand-TERT co-crystal structures, and our expertise in the rapid parallel synthesis of new compound libraries, taking advantage of >20,000 reagents and starting materials available onsite (>800 boronic acids). Our research may provide a new approach for the structure-based design of small-molecule inhibitors of telomerase, and may reinvigorate research in the area of small-molecule telomerase inhibitors, eventually resulting in new drugs to treat melanoma alone or in combination with existing chemo- or immunotherapies. The research team is led by an expert in telomerase (Skordalakes) at The Wistar Institute, along with experienced pharma researchers in medicinal (Reitz) and computational chemistry (Reynolds) at the Fox Chase Chemical Diversity Center, Inc.

Public Health Relevance

Melanoma is one of the most aggressive and deadly forms of skin cancer, which has been increasing in prevalence over the past 10 years, and constitutes a significant threat to public health. Based on recent NCI statistics, the number of skin melanoma was 21.6 per 100,000 men and women per year. The number of deaths was 2.7 per 100,000 men and women per year. These rates are age-adjusted and based on 2008-2012 cases and deaths. Approximately 2.1 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with melanoma of the skin at some point during their lifetime, based on 2010-2012 data. In 2012, there were an estimated 1 million people living with melanoma of the skin in the United States. For this reason, novel melanoma therapies are needed urgently. There is now a wealth of information implicating telomerase in melanoma. Our effort guided by X-ray crystallography provides a new approach for the structure-based design of small molecule inhibitors of telomerase. If successful, this project has the potential to reinvigorate research in the area of small-molecule telomerase inhibition, and to eventually result in new drugs to treat melanoma alone or in combination with other agents.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Cancer Institute (NCI)
Research Project (R01)
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Drug Discovery and Molecular Pharmacology Study Section (DMP)
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Amin, Anowarul
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Wistar Institute
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Shastrula, Prashanth K; Rice, Cory T; Wang, Zhuo et al. (2018) Structural and functional analysis of an OB-fold in human Ctc1 implicated in telomere maintenance and bone marrow syndromes. Nucleic Acids Res 46:972-984
Sakurai, Masayuki; Shiromoto, Yusuke; Ota, Hiromitsu et al. (2017) ADAR1 controls apoptosis of stressed cells by inhibiting Staufen1-mediated mRNA decay. Nat Struct Mol Biol 24:534-543
Rice, Cory; Shastrula, Prashanth Krishna; Kossenkov, Andrew V et al. (2017) Structural and functional analysis of the human POT1-TPP1 telomeric complex. Nat Commun 8:14928
Hoffman, Hunter; Rice, Cory; Skordalakes, Emmanuel (2017) Structural Analysis Reveals the Deleterious Effects of Telomerase Mutations in Bone Marrow Failure Syndromes. J Biol Chem 292:4593-4601
Hoffman, H; Skordalakes, E (2016) Crystallographic Studies of Telomerase. Methods Enzymol 573:403-19