Document Type

Theses, Ph.D


Available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 4.0 International Licence



Publication Details

Thesis submitted to Technological University Dublin in fulfilment of requirement for the degree of “Doctor of Philosophy”, March 2022.


The G-protein coupled receptor, GPR120, has ubiquitous expression and multifaceted roles in modulating metabolic and anti-inflammatory processes. GPR120 - also known as Free Fatty Acid Receptor 4 (FFAR4) is classified as a free fatty acid receptor of the Class A GPCR family. GPR120 has recently been implicated as a novel target for cancer management. GPR120 gene knockdown in breast cancer studies revealed a role of GPR120-induced chemoresistance in epirubicin and cisplatin-induced DNA damage in tumour cells. Higher expression and activation levels of GPR120 is also reported to promote tumour angiogenesis and cell migration in colorectal cancer. A number of agonists targeting GPR120 have been reported, such as TUG891 and Compound39, but to date development of small-molecule inhibitors of GPR120 is limited.

This research applied a rational drug discovery approach to discover and design novel anticancer agents targeting the GPR120 receptor. A homology model of GPR120 (short isoform) was generated to identify potential anticancer compounds using a combined in silico docking-based virtual screening (DBVS), molecular dynamics (MD) assisted pharmacophore screenings, structure–activity relationships (SAR) and in vitro screening approach. A pharmacophore hypothesis was derived from analysis of 300 ns all-atomic MD simulations on apo, TUG891-bound and Compound39-bound GPR120 (short isoform) receptor models and was used to screen for ligands interacting with Trp277 and Asn313 of GPR120. Comparative analysis of 100 ns all-atomic MD simulations of 9 selected compounds predicted the effects of ligand binding on the stability of the “ionic lock” – a characteristic of Class A GPCRs activation and inactivation. The “ionic lock” between TM3(Arg136) and TM6(Asp) is known to prevent G-protein recruitment while GPCR agonist binding is coupled to outward movement of TM6 breaking the “ionic lock” which facilitates G-protein recruitment. The MD-assisted pharmacophore hypothesis predicted Cpd 9, (2-hydroxy-N-{4-[(6-hydroxy-2-methylpyrimidin-4-yl) amino] phenyl} benzamide) to act as a GPR120S antagonist which can be evaluated and characterised in future studies.

Additionally, DBVS of a small molecule database (~350,000 synthetic chemical compounds) against the developed GPR120 (short isoform) model led to selection of the 13 hit molecules which were then tested in vitro to evaluate their cytotoxic, colony forming and cell migration activities against SW480 – human CRC cell line expressing GPR120.

Two of the DBVS hit molecules showed significant (> 90%) inhibitory effects on cell growth with micromolar affinities (at 100 μM) - AK-968/12713190 (dihydrospiro(benzo[h]quinazoline-5,1′-cyclopentane)-4(3H)-one) and AG-690/40104520 (fluoren-9-one). SAR analysis of these two test compounds led to the identification of more active compounds in cell-based cytotoxicity assays – AL-281/36997031 (IC50 = 5.89–6.715 μM), AL-281/36997034 (IC50 = 6.789 to 7.502 μM) and AP-845/40876799 (IC50 = 14.16-18.02 μM). In addition, AL-281/36997031 and AP-845/40876799 were found to be significantly target-specific during comparative cytotoxicity profiling in GPR120-silenced and GPR120-expressing SW480 cells. In wound healing assays, AL-281/36997031 was found to be the most active at 3 μM (IC25) and prevented cell migration. As well as in the assessment of the proliferation ability of a single cell to survive and form colonies through clonogenic assays, AL-281/36997031 was found to be the most potent of all three test compounds with the survival rate of ~ 30% at 3 μM.

The inter-disciplinary approach applied in this work identified potential chemical scaffolds –spiral benzo-quinazoline and fluorenone, targeting GPR120 which can be further explored for designing anti-cancer drug development studies.