Publication date: Jan 21, 2024
Protein-templated fragment ligation was established as a method for the rapid identification of high affinity ligands, and multicomponent reactions (MCR) such as the Ugi four-component reaction (Ugi 4CR) have been efficient in the synthesis of drug candidates. Thus, the combination of both strategies should provide a powerful approach to drug discovery. Here, we investigate protein-templated Ugi 4CR quantitatively using a fluorescence-based enzyme assay, HPLC-QTOF-MS, and native protein MS with SARS-CoV-2 main protease as template. Ugi reactions were analyzed in aqueous buffer at varying pH and fragment concentration. Potent inhibitors of the protease were formed in presence of the protein via Ugi 4CR together with Ugi three-component reaction (Ugi 3CR) products. Binding of inhibitors to the protease was confirmed by native mass spectrometry and resulted in the dimerization of the protein target. Formation of Ugi products was, however, more efficient in the non-templated reaction, apparently due to interactions of the protein with the isocyanide and imine fragments. Consequently, in-situ ligation screening of Ugi 4CR products was identified as a superior approach to the discovery of SARS-CoV-2 protease inhibitors.