Virtual High-Throughput Screening to Identify Novel Activin Antagonists

Jie Zhu, Rama K. Mishra, Gary E. Schiltz, Yogeshwar Makanji, Karl A. Scheidt, Andrew P. Mazar, Teresa K. Woodruff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


Activin belongs to the TGFβ superfamily, which is associated with several disease conditions, including cancer-related cachexia, preterm labor with delivery, and osteoporosis. Targeting activin and its related signaling pathways holds promise as a therapeutic approach to these diseases. A small-molecule ligand-binding groove was identified in the interface between the two activin βA subunits and was used for a virtual high-throughput in silico screening of the ZINC database to identify hits. Thirty-nine compounds without significant toxicity were tested in two well-established activin assays: FSHβ transcription and HepG2 cell apoptosis. This screening workflow resulted in two lead compounds: NUCC-474 and NUCC-555. These potential activin antagonists were then shown to inhibit activin A-mediated cell proliferation in ex vivo ovary cultures. In vivo testing showed that our most potent compound (NUCC-555) caused a dose-dependent decrease in FSH levels in ovariectomized mice. The Blitz competition binding assay confirmed target binding of NUCC-555 to the activin A:ActRII that disrupts the activin A:ActRII complex's binding with ALK4-ECD-Fc in a dose-dependent manner. The NUCC-555 also specifically binds to activin A compared with other TGFβ superfamily member myostatin (GDF8). These data demonstrate a new in silico-based strategy for identifying small-molecule activin antagonists. Our approach is the first to identify a first-in-class small-molecule antagonist of activin binding to ALK4, which opens a completely new approach to inhibiting the activity of TGFβ receptor superfamily members. in addition, the lead compound can serve as a starting point for lead optimization toward the goal of a compound that may be effective in activin-mediated diseases.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5637-5648
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Medicinal Chemistry
Issue number14
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jul 2015
Externally publishedYes

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