Targeting malaria with specific CDK inhibitors

Jeanne A. Geyer, Sean T. Prigge, Norman C. Waters

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cyclin-dependent protein kinases (CDKs) are attractive targets for drug discovery and efforts have led to the identification of novel CDK selective inhibitors in the development of treatments for cancers, neurological disorders, and infectious diseases. More recently, they have become the focus of rational drug design programs for the development of new antimalarial agents. CDKs are valid targets as they function as essential regulators of cell growth and differentiation. To date, several CDKs have been characterized from the genome of the malaria-causing protozoan Plasmodium falciparum. Our approach employs experimental and virtual screening methodologies to identify and refine chemical inhibitors of the parasite CDK Pfmrk, a sequence homologue of human CDK7. Chemotypes of Pfmrk inhibitors include the purines, quinolinones, oxindoles, and chalcones, which have sub-micromolar IC50 values against the parasite enzyme, but not the human CDKs. Additionally, we have developed and validated a pharmacophore, based on Pfmrk inhibitors, which contains two hydrogen bond acceptor functions and two hydrophobic sites, including one aromatic ring hydrophobic site. This pharmacophore has been exploited to identify additional compounds that demonstrate significant inhibitory activity against Pfmrk. A molecular model of Pfmrk designed using the crystal structure of human CDK7 highlights key amino acid substitutions in the ATP binding pocket. Molecular modeling and docking of the active site pocket with selective inhibitors has identified possible receptor-ligand interactions that may be responsible for inhibitor specificity. Overall, the unique biochemical characteristics associated with this protein, to include distinctive active site amino acid residues and variable inhibitor profiles, distinguishes the Pfmrk drug screen as a paradigm for CDK inhibitor analysis in the parasite.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)160-170
Number of pages11
JournalBiochimica et Biophysica Acta - Proteins and Proteomics
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Dec 30 2005


  • CDK inhibitor
  • Cyclin dependent protein kinase
  • Malaria
  • Pfmrk
  • Plasmodium falciparum

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Analytical Chemistry
  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology


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