Taming the Cytokine Storm: Small Molecule Inhibitors Targeting IL-6/IL-6α Receptor

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Given the increasing effectiveness of immune-based therapies, management of their associated toxicities is of utmost importance. Cytokine release syndrome (CRS), characterized by elevated levels of cytokine, poses a significant challenge following the administration of antibodies and CAR-T cell therapies. CRS also contributes to multiple organ dysfunction in severe viral infections, notably in COVID-19. Given the pivotal role of IL-6 cytokine in initiating CRS, it has been considered a most potential therapeutic target to mitigate hyperactivated immune responses. While monoclonal antibodies of IL-6 show promise in mitigating cytokine storm, concerns about immunotoxicity persist, and small molecule IL-6 antagonists remain unavailable. The present study employed sophisticated computational techniques to identify potential hit compounds as IL-6 inhibitors, with the aim of inhibiting IL-6/IL-6R protein–protein interactions. Through ligand-based pharmacophore mapping and shape similarity in combination with docking-based screening, we identified nine hit compounds with diverse chemical scaffolds as potential binders of IL-6. Further, the MD simulation of 300 ns of five virtual hits in a complex with IL-6 was employed to study the dynamic behavior. To provide a more precise prediction, binding free energy was also estimated. The identified compounds persistently interacted with the residues lining the binding site of the IL-6 protein. These compounds displayed low binding energy during MMPBSA calculations, substantiating their strong association with IL-6. This study suggests promising scaffolds as potential inhibitors of IL-6/IL-6R protein–protein interactions and provides direction for lead optimization.


This article was originally published in Molecular Diversity in 2024. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11030-023-10805-5

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This scholarship is part of the Chapman University COVID-19 Archives.