Binding interactions between human serum albumin (HSA) and four approved epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) inhibitors gefitinib (GEF), erlotinib (ERL), afatinib (AFA), osimertinib (OSI), as well as the experimental drug KP2187, were investigated by means of spectrofluorometric and molecular modelling methods. Steady-state and time resolved spectrofluorometric techniques were carried out, including direct quenching of protein fluorescence and site marker displacement measurements. Proton dissociation processes and solvent dependent fluorescence properties were investigated as well. The EGFR inhibitors were predominantly presented in their single protonated form (HL+) at physiological pH except ERL, which is charge-neutral. Significant solvent dependent fluorescence properties were found for GEF, ERL and KP2187, namely their emission spectra show strong dependence on the polarity and the hydrogen bonding ability of the solvents.
The inhibitors proved to be bound at site I of HSA (in subdomain IIA) in a weak-to-moderate fashion (logK’ 3.9–4.9) using spectrofluorometry. OSI (logK’ 4.3) and KP2187 can additionally bind in site II (in subdomain IIIA), while GEF, ERL and AFA clearly show no interaction here. Docking methods qualitatively confirmed binding site preferences of compounds GEF and KP2187, and indicated that they probably bind to HSA in their neutral forms. Binding constants calculated on the basis of the various experimental data indicate a weak-to-moderate binding on HSA, only OSI exhibits somewhat higher affinity towards this protein. However, model calculations performed at physiological blood concentrations of HSA resulted in high (ca. 90%) bound fractions for the inhibitors, highlighting the importance of plasma protein binding.