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Open Access Research article

Two additive mechanisms impair the differentiation of 'substrate-selective' p38 inhibitors from classical p38 inhibitors in vitro

Bart S Hendriks*, Kelly M Seidl and Jeffrey R Chabot

Author Affiliations

Systems Biology, Pfizer Research Technology Center, 620 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, MA, 02139, USA

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BMC Systems Biology 2010, 4:23  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-4-23

Published: 15 March 2010



The success of anti-TNF biologics for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis has highlighted the importance of understanding the intracellular pathways that regulate TNF production in the quest for an orally-available small molecule inhibitor. p38 is known to strongly regulate TNF production via MK2. The failure of several p38 inhibitors in the clinic suggests the importance of other downstream pathways in normal cell function. Recent work has described a 'substrate-selective' p38 inhibitor that is able to preferentially block the activity of p38 against one substrate (MK2) versus another (ATF2). Using a combined experimental and computational approach, we have examined this mechanism in greater detail for two p38 substrates, MK2 and ATF2.


We found that in a dual (MK2 and ATF2) substrate assay, MK2-p38 interaction reduced the activity of p38 against ATF2. We further constructed a detailed kinetic mechanistic model of p38 phosphorylation in the presence of multiple substrates and successfully predicted the performance of classical and so-called 'substrate-selective' p38 inhibitors in the dual substrate assay. Importantly, it was found that excess MK2 results in a stoichiometric effect in which the formation of p38-MK2-inhibitor complex prevents the phosphorylation of ATF2, despite the preference of the compound for the p38-MK2 complex over the p38-ATF2 complex. MK2 and p38 protein expression levels were quantified in U937, Thp-1 and PBMCs and found that [MK2] > [p38].


Our integrated mechanistic modeling and experimental validation provides an example of how systems biology approaches can be applied to drug discovery and provide a basis for decision-making with limited chemical matter. We find that, given our current understanding, it is unlikely that 'substrate-selective' inhibitors of p38 will work as originally intended when placed in the context of more complex cellular environments, largely due to a stoichiometric excess of MK2 relative to p38.