Aromatic Rings as Molecular Determinants for the Molecular Recognition of Protein Kinase Inhibitors

Molecules. 2021 Mar 22;26(6):1776. doi: 10.3390/molecules26061776.


Protein kinases are key enzymes in many signal transduction pathways, and play a crucial role in cellular proliferation, differentiation, and various cell regulatory processes. However, aberrant function of kinases has been associated with cancers and many other diseases. Consequently, competitive inhibition of the ATP binding site of protein kinases has emerged as an effective means of curing these diseases. Over the past three decades, thousands of protein kinase inhibitors (PKIs) with varying molecular frames have been developed. Large-scale data mining of the Protein Data Bank resulted in a database of 2139 non-redundant high-resolution X-ray crystal structures of PKIs bound to protein kinases. This provided us with a unique opportunity to study molecular determinants for the molecular recognition of PKIs. A chemoinformatic analysis of 2139 PKIs resulted in findings that PKIs are "flat" molecules with high aromatic ring counts and low fractions of sp3 carbon. All but one PKI possessed one or more aromatic rings. More importantly, it was found that the average weighted hydrogen bond count is inversely proportional to the number of aromatic rings. Based on this linear relationship, we put forward the exchange rule of hydrogen bonding interactions and non-bonded π-interactions. Specifically, a loss of binding affinity caused by a decrease in hydrogen bonding interactions is compensated by a gain in binding affinity acquired by an increase in aromatic ring-originated non-bonded interactions (i.e., π-π stacking interactions, CH-π interactions, cation-π interactions, etc.), and vice versa. The very existence of this inverse relationship strongly suggests that both hydrogen bonding and aromatic ring-originated non-bonded interactions are responsible for the molecular recognition of PKIs. As an illustration, two representative PKI-kinase complexes were employed to examine the relative importance of different modes of non-bonded interactions for the molecular recognition of PKIs. For this purpose, two FDA-approved PKI drugs, ibrutinib and lenvatinib, were chosen. The binding pockets of both PKIs were thoroughly examined to identify all non-bonded intermolecular interactions. Subsequently, the strengths of interaction energies between ibrutinib and its interacting residues in tyrosine kinase BTK were quantified by means of the double hybrid DFT method B2PLYP. The resulting energetics for the binding of ibrutinib in tyrosine kinase BTK showed that CH-π interactions and π-π stacking interactions between aromatic rings of the drug and hydrophobic residues in its binding pocket dominate the binding interactions. Thus, this work establishes that, in addition to hydrogen bonding, aromatic rings function as important molecular determinants for the molecular recognition of PKIs. In conclusion, our findings support the following pharmacophore model for ATP-competitive kinase inhibitors: a small molecule features a scaffold of one or more aromatic rings which is linked with one or more hydrophilic functional groups. The former has the structural role of acting as a scaffold and the functional role of participating in aromatic ring-originated non-bonded interactions with multiple hydrophobic regions in the ATP binding pocket of kinases. The latter ensure water solubility and form hydrogen bonds with the hinge region and other hydrophilic residues of the ATP binding pocket.

Keywords: CH–π interactions; aromatic rings; molecular recognition; protein kinase inhibitor; rational drug design; π–π stacking interactions.

MeSH terms

  • Databases, Protein*
  • Hydrogen Bonding
  • Models, Molecular*
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / chemistry*
  • Protein Kinases / chemistry*


  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Protein Kinases