Development of Reduced Peptide Bond Pseudopeptide Michael Acceptors for the Treatment of Human African Trypanosomiasis

Molecules. 2022 Jun 11;27(12):3765. doi: 10.3390/molecules27123765.


Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT) is an endemic protozoan disease widespread in the sub-Saharan region that is caused by T. b. gambiense and T. b. rhodesiense. The development of molecules targeting rhodesain, the main cysteine protease of T. b. rhodesiense, has led to a panel of inhibitors endowed with micro/sub-micromolar activity towards the protozoa. However, whilst impressive binding affinity against rhodesain has been observed, the limited selectivity towards the target still remains a hard challenge for the development of antitrypanosomal agents. In this paper, we report the synthesis, biological evaluation, as well as docking studies of a series of reduced peptide bond pseudopeptide Michael acceptors (SPR10-SPR19) as potential anti-HAT agents. The new molecules show Ki values in the low-micro/sub-micromolar range against rhodesain, coupled with k2nd values between 1314 and 6950 M-1 min-1. With a few exceptions, an appreciable selectivity over human cathepsin L was observed. In in vitro assays against T. b. brucei cultures, SPR16 and SPR18 exhibited single-digit micromolar activity against the protozoa, comparable to those reported for very potent rhodesain inhibitors, while no significant cytotoxicity up to 70 µM towards mammalian cells was observed. The discrepancy between rhodesain inhibition and the antitrypanosomal effect could suggest additional mechanisms of action. The biological characterization of peptide inhibitor SPR34 highlights the essential role played by the reduced bond for the antitrypanosomal effect. Overall, this series of molecules could represent the starting point for further investigations of reduced peptide bond-containing analogs as potential anti-HAT agents.

Keywords: Michael acceptors; antitrypanosomal agents; peptide backbone modifications; pseudopeptides; rhodesain; sleeping sickness.

MeSH terms

  • Africa, Northern
  • Animals
  • Cysteine Proteinase Inhibitors / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Mammals
  • Trypanocidal Agents* / chemistry
  • Trypanosoma brucei brucei*
  • Trypanosomiasis, African* / drug therapy


  • Cysteine Proteinase Inhibitors
  • Trypanocidal Agents