Lead compound

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A lead compound ( /ˈld/ , i.e. a "leading" compound, not to be confused with various compounds of the metallic element lead) in drug discovery is a chemical compound that has pharmacological or biological activity likely to be therapeutically useful, but may nevertheless have suboptimal structure that requires modification to fit better to the target; lead drugs offer the prospect of being followed by back-up compounds. Its chemical structure serves as a starting point for chemical modifications in order to improve potency, selectivity, or pharmacokinetic parameters. Furthermore, newly invented pharmacologically active moieties may have poor druglikeness and may require chemical modification to become drug-like enough to be tested biologically or clinically. [1]



Lead compounds are sometimes called developmental candidates. [1] This is because the discovery and selection of lead compounds occurs prior to preclinical and clinical development of the candidate.

Discovering lead compounds

Discovery of a drugable target

Before lead compounds can be discovered, a suitable target for rational drug design must be selected on the basis of biological plausibility or identified through screening potential lead compounds against multiple targets. [1] Drug libraries are often tested by high-throughput screenings (active compounds are designated as "hits") which can screen compounds for their ability to inhibit (antagonist) or stimulate (agonist) a receptor of interest as well as determine their selectivity for them. [1]

Development of a lead compound

A lead compound may arise from a variety of different sources. Lead compounds are found by characterizing natural products, employing combinatorial chemistry, or by molecular modeling as in rational drug design. [2] Chemicals identified as hits through high-throughput screening may also become lead compounds. [1] Once a lead compound is selected it must undergo lead optimization, which involves making the compound more "drug-like." [1] This is where Lipinski's rule of five comes into play, sometimes also referred to as the "Pfizer rule" or simply as the "rule of five." [3] Other factors, such as the ease of scaling up the manufacturing of the chemical, must be taken into consideration. [3]

See also

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Pharmacology Branch of biology concerning drugs

Pharmacology is a branch of medicine, biology and pharmaceutical sciences concerned with drug or medication action, where a drug may be defined as any artificial, natural, or endogenous molecule which exerts a biochemical or physiological effect on the cell, tissue, organ, or organism. More specifically, it is the study of the interactions that occur between a living organism and chemicals that affect normal or abnormal biochemical function. If substances have medicinal properties, they are considered pharmaceuticals.

Drug discovery Process by which new candidate medications are discovered

In the fields of medicine, biotechnology and pharmacology, drug discovery is the process by which new candidate medications are discovered.

Drug design Inventive process of finding new medications based on the knowledge of a biological target

Drug design, often referred to as rational drug design or simply rational design, is the inventive process of finding new medications based on the knowledge of a biological target. The drug is most commonly an organic small molecule that activates or inhibits the function of a biomolecule such as a protein, which in turn results in a therapeutic benefit to the patient. In the most basic sense, drug design involves the design of molecules that are complementary in shape and charge to the biomolecular target with which they interact and therefore will bind to it. Drug design frequently but not necessarily relies on computer modeling techniques. This type of modeling is sometimes referred to as computer-aided drug design. Finally, drug design that relies on the knowledge of the three-dimensional structure of the biomolecular target is known as structure-based drug design. In addition to small molecules, biopharmaceuticals including peptides and especially therapeutic antibodies are an increasingly important class of drugs and computational methods for improving the affinity, selectivity, and stability of these protein-based therapeutics have also been developed.

Lipinskis rule of five

Lipinski's rule of five, also known as Pfizer's rule of five or simply the rule of five (RO5), is a rule of thumb to evaluate druglikeness or determine if a chemical compound with a certain pharmacological or biological activity has chemical properties and physical properties that would make it a likely orally active drug in humans. The rule was formulated by Christopher A. Lipinski in 1997, based on the observation that most orally administered drugs are relatively small and moderately lipophilic molecules.

High-throughput screening Drug discovery experimental technique

High-throughput screening (HTS) is a method for scientific experimentation especially used in drug discovery and relevant to the fields of biology, materials science and chemistry. Using robotics, data processing/control software, liquid handling devices, and sensitive detectors, high-throughput screening allows a researcher to quickly conduct millions of chemical, genetic, or pharmacological tests. Through this process one can rapidly identify active compounds, antibodies, or genes that modulate a particular biomolecular pathway. The results of these experiments provide starting points for drug design and for understanding the noninteraction or role of a particular location.

Medicinal chemistry Scientific branch of chemistry

Medicinal chemistry is discipline at the intersection of chemistry, especially synthetic organic chemistry, and pharmacology and various other biological specialties, where they are involved with design, chemical synthesis and development for market of pharmaceutical agents, or bio-active molecules (drugs).

A biological target is anything within a living organism to which some other entity is directed and/or binds, resulting in a change in its behavior or function. Examples of common classes of biological targets are proteins and nucleic acids. The definition is context-dependent, and can refer to the biological target of a pharmacologically active drug compound, the receptor target of a hormone, or some other target of an external stimulus. Biological targets are most commonly proteins such as enzymes, ion channels, and receptors.


Chemogenomics, or chemical genomics, is the systematic screening of targeted chemical libraries of small molecules against individual drug target families with the ultimate goal of identification of novel drugs and drug targets. Typically some members of a target library have been well characterized where both the function has been determined and compounds that modulate the function of those targets have been identified. Other members of the target family may have unknown function with no known ligands and hence are classified as orphan receptors. By identifying screening hits that modulate the activity of the less well characterized members of the target family, the function of these novel targets can be elucidated. Furthermore, the hits for these targets can be used as a starting point for drug discovery. The completion of the human genome project has provided an abundance of potential targets for therapeutic intervention. Chemogenomics strives to study the intersection of all possible drugs on all of these potential targets.

High-content screening (HCS), also known as high-content analysis (HCA) or cellomics, is a method that is used in biological research and drug discovery to identify substances such as small molecules, peptides, or RNAi that alter the phenotype of a cell in a desired manner. Hence high content screening is a type of phenotypic screen conducted in cells involving the analysis of whole cells or components of cells with simultaneous readout of several parameters. HCS is related to high-throughput screening (HTS), in which thousands of compounds are tested in parallel for their activity in one or more biological assays, but involves assays of more complex cellular phenotypes as outputs. Phenotypic changes may include increases or decreases in the production of cellular products such as proteins and/or changes in the morphology of the cell. Hence HCA typically involves automated microscopy and image analysis. Unlike high-content analysis, high-content screening implies a level of throughput which is why the term "screening" differentiates HCS from HCA, which may be high in content but low in throughput.

Hit to lead (H2L) also known as lead generation is a stage in early drug discovery where small molecule hits from a high throughput screen (HTS) are evaluated and undergo limited optimization to identify promising lead compounds. These lead compounds undergo more extensive optimization in a subsequent step of drug discovery called lead optimization (LO). The drug discovery process generally follows the following path that includes a hit to lead stage:

A chemical library or compound library is a collection of stored chemicals usually used ultimately in high-throughput screening or industrial manufacture. The chemical library can consist in simple terms of a series of stored chemicals. Each chemical has associated information stored in some kind of database with information such as the chemical structure, purity, quantity, and physiochemical characteristics of the compound.

Fragment-based lead discovery (FBLD) also known as fragment-based drug discovery (FBDD) is a method used for finding lead compounds as part of the drug discovery process. Fragments are small organic molecules which are small in size and low in molecular weight. It is based on identifying small chemical fragments, which may bind only weakly to the biological target, and then growing them or combining them to produce a lead with a higher affinity. FBLD can be compared with high-throughput screening (HTS). In HTS, libraries with up to millions of compounds, with molecular weights of around 500 Da, are screened, and nanomolar binding affinities are sought. In contrast, in the early phase of FBLD, libraries with a few thousand compounds with molecular weights of around 200 Da may be screened, and millimolar affinities can be considered useful. FBLD is a technique being used in research for discovering novel potent inhibitors. This methodology could help to design multitarget drugs for multiple diseases. The multitarget inhibitor approach is based on designing an inhibitor for the multiple targets. This type of drug design opens up new polypharmacological avenues for discovering innovative and effective therapies. Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s (AD) and Parkinson’s, among others, also show rather complex etiopathologies. Multitarget inhibitors are more appropriate for addressing the complexity of AD and may provide new drugs for controlling the multifactorial nature of AD, stopping its progression.

Reverse pharmacology Drug discovery by identifying protein targets

In the field of drug discovery, reverse pharmacology also known as target-based drug discovery (TDD), a hypothesis is first made that modulation of the activity of a specific protein target will have beneficial therapeutic effects. Screening of chemical libraries of small molecules is then used to identify compounds that bind with high affinity to the target. The hits from these screens are then used as starting points for drug discovery. This method became popular after the sequencing of the human genome which allowed rapid cloning and synthesis of large quantities of purified proteins. This method is the most widely used in drug discovery today. Differently than the classical (forward) pharmacology, with the reverse pharmacology approach in vivo efficacy of identified active (lead) compounds is usually performed in the final drug discovery stages.

Phenotypic screening is a type of screening used in biological research and drug discovery to identify substances such as small molecules, peptides, or RNAi that alter the phenotype of a cell or an organism in a desired manner. Phenotypic screening must be followed up with target identification and validation campaigns, often through the use of chemoproteomics, to identify the mechanisms through which a phenotypic hit works.

Classical pharmacology drug discovery by phenotypic screening

In the field of drug discovery, classical pharmacology, also known as forward pharmacology, or phenotypic drug discovery (PDD), relies on phenotypic screening of chemical libraries of synthetic small molecules, natural products or extracts to identify substances that have a desirable therapeutic effect. Using the techniques of medicinal chemistry, the potency, selectivity, and other properties of these screening hits are optimized to produce candidate drugs.

Targeted covalent inhibitors

Targeted covalent inhibitors (TCIs) or Targeted covalent drugs are rationally designed inhibitors that bind and then bond to their target proteins. These inhibitors possess a bond-forming functional group of low chemical reactivity that, following binding to the target protein, is positioned to react rapidly with a proximate nucleophilic residue at the target site to form a bond.

Eroom's law is the observation that drug discovery is becoming slower and more expensive over time, despite improvements in technology, a trend first observed in the 1980s. The inflation-adjusted cost of developing a new drug roughly doubles every nine years. In order to highlight the contrast with the exponential advancements of other forms of technology over time, the name given to the observation is Moore's law spelled backwards.

Chemoproteomics entails a broad array of techniques used to identify and interrogate protein-small molecule interactions. Chemoproteomics complements phenotypic drug discovery, a paradigm that aims to discover lead compounds on the basis of alleviating a disease phenotype, as opposed to target-based drug discovery, in which lead compounds are designed to interact with predetermined disease-driving biological targets. As phenotypic drug discovery assays do not provide confirmation of a compound's mechanism of action, chemoproteomics provides valuable follow-up strategies to narrow down potential targets and eventually validate a molecule's mechanism of action. Chemoproteomics also attempts to address the inherent challenge of drug promiscuity in small molecule drug discovery by analyzing protein-small molecule interactions on a proteome-wide scale. A major goal of chemoproteomics is to characterize the interactome of drug candidates to gain insight into mechanisms of off-target toxicity and polypharmacology.

The European Lead Factory is a public-private partnership that aims to accelerate early drug discovery in Europe. The European Lead Factory is funded by the Innovative Medicines Initiative and consists of a pan-European consortium that includes 7 pharmaceutical companies as well as partners from academia and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

James Inglese American biochemist

James Inglese is an American biochemist, the director of the Assay Development and Screening Technology laboratory at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, a Center within the National Institutes of Health. His specialty is small molecule high throughput screening. Inglese’s laboratory develops methods and strategies in molecular pharmacology with drug discovery applications. The work of his research group and collaborators focuses on genetic and infectious disease-associated biology.


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