Research ArticlePrion Disease

Structure-based drug design identifies polythiophenes as antiprion compounds

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Science Translational Medicine  05 Aug 2015:
Vol. 7, Issue 299, pp. 299ra123
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aab1923

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Putting prions in their place

In a mouse model of prion disease, Herrmann et al. evaluated the therapeutic efficacy of luminescent conjugated polythiophenes (LCPs), which are molecules with a high affinity for ordered protein aggregates. Intracerebral administration of LCPs into prion-infected mice using osmotic pumps increased survival. Solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance and in silico binding studies of LCPs to simplified model fibrils allowed the authors to define structural rules, which they then used for the design of LCPs with superior prophylactic and therapeutic potency. The new work demonstrates the feasibility of rational drug design for developing therapeutics to treat prion diseases.


Prions cause transmissible spongiform encephalopathies for which no treatment exists. Prions consist of PrPSc, a misfolded and aggregated form of the cellular prion protein (PrPC). We explore the antiprion properties of luminescent conjugated polythiophenes (LCPs) that bind and stabilize ordered protein aggregates. By administering a library of structurally diverse LCPs to the brains of prion-infected mice via osmotic minipumps, we found that antiprion activity required a minimum of five thiophene rings bearing regularly spaced carboxyl side groups. Solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance analyses and molecular dynamics simulations revealed that anionic side chains interacted with complementary, regularly spaced cationic amyloid residues of model prions. These findings allowed us to extract structural rules governing the interaction between LCPs and protein aggregates, which we then used to design a new set of LCPs with optimized binding. The new set of LCPs showed robust prophylactic and therapeutic potency in prion-infected mice, with the lead compound extending survival by >80% and showing activity against both mouse and hamster prions as well as efficacy upon intraperitoneal administration into mice. These results demonstrate the feasibility of targeted chemical design of compounds that may be useful for treating diseases of aberrant protein aggregation such as prion disease.

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