Cholinergic synaptic transmission often requires extremely rapid hydrolysis of acetylcholine by acetylcholinesterase (AChE). AChE is inactivated by organophosphates (OPs) in chemical warfare nerve agents. The resulting accumulation of acetylcholine disrupts cholinergic synaptic transmission and can lead to death. A potential long-term strategy for preventing AChE inactivation by OPs is based on evidence that OPs must pass through a peripheral site or P-site near the mouth of the AChE active site gorge before reacting with a catalytic serine in an acylation site or A-site at the base of the gorge. An ultimate goal of this strategy is to design compounds that bind tightly at or near the P-site and exclude OPs from the active site while interfering minimally with the passage of acetylcholine. However, to target the AChE P-site with ligands and potential drugs that selectively restrict access, much more information must be gathered about the structure-activity relationships of ligands that bind specifically to the P-site. We apply here an inhibitor competition assay that can correctly determine whether an AChE inhibitor binds to the P-site, the A-site, or both sites. We have used this assay to examine three uncharged, natural product inhibitors of AChE, including aflatoxin B1, dihydrotanshinone I, and territrem B. The first two of these inhibitors are predicted by the competition assay to bind selectively to the P-site, while territrem B is predicted to span both the P- and A-sites. These predictions have recently been confirmed by X-ray crystallography. Dihydrotanshinone I, with an observed binding constant (KI) of 750 nM, provides a good lead compound for the development of high-affinity, uncharged inhibitors with specificity for the P-site.
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