Small-Molecule 3D Ligand for RNA Recognition: Tuning Selectivity through Scaffold Hopping

ACS Chem Biol. 2022 Nov 18;17(11):3069-3076. doi: 10.1021/acschembio.2c00171. Epub 2022 Oct 31.


Targeting RNAs with small molecules is considered the next frontier for drug discovery. In this context, the development of compounds capable of binding RNA structural motifs of low complexity with high affinity and selectivity would greatly expand the number of targets of potential therapeutic value. In this study, we demonstrate that tuning the three-dimensional shape of promiscuous nucleic acid binders is a valuable strategy for the design of new selective RNA ligands. Indeed, starting from a known cyanine, the simple replacement of a phenyl ring with a [2.2]paracyclophane moiety led to a new compound able to discriminate between nucleic acids showing different structural characteristics with a marked affinity and selectivity for an octahairpin loop RNA sequence. This shape modification also affected the in cellulo behavior of the cyanine. These results suggest that scaffold hopping is a valuable strategy to improve the selectivity of RNA/small-molecule interactions and highlight the need to explore a new chemical space for the design of selective RNA ligands.

MeSH terms

  • Drug Discovery
  • Ligands
  • RNA* / metabolism
  • Small Molecule Libraries* / chemistry


  • Ligands
  • RNA
  • Small Molecule Libraries