Protein-protein interactions drive every aspect of cell signaling, yet only a few small-molecule inhibitors of these interactions exist. Despite our ability to identify critical residues known as hot spots, little is known about how to effectively engage them to disrupt protein-protein interactions. Here, we take advantage of the ease of preparation and stability of pyrrolinone 1, a small-molecule inhibitor of the tight interaction between the urokinase receptor (uPAR) and its binding partner, the urokinase-type plasminogen activator uPA, to synthesize more than 40 derivatives and explore their effect on the protein-protein interaction. We report the crystal structure of uPAR bound to previously discovered pyrazole 3 and to pyrrolinone 12. While both 3 and 12 bind to uPAR and compete with a fluorescently labeled peptide probe, only 12 and its derivatives inhibit the full uPAR·uPA interaction. Compounds 3 and 12 mimic and engage different hot-spot residues on uPA and uPAR, respectively. Interestingly, 12 is involved in a π-cation interaction with Arg-53, which is not considered a hot spot. Explicit-solvent molecular dynamics simulations reveal that 3 and 12 exhibit dramatically different correlations of motion with residues on uPAR. Free energy calculations for the wild-type and mutant uPAR bound to uPA or 12 show that Arg-53 interacts with uPA or with 12 in a highly cooperative manner, thereby altering the contributions of hot spots to uPAR binding. The direct engagement of peripheral residues not considered hot spots through π-cation or salt-bridge interactions could provide new opportunities for enhanced small-molecule engagement of hot spots to disrupt challenging protein-protein interactions.
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