- Human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) is a placental hormone that stimulates secretion of the pregnancy-sustaining steroid progesterone. It and other glycoprotein hormones are disulfide-rich heterodimers that share a common alpha chain and distinctive beta chains specific to their particular G protein-linked receptors. We determined the structure of partially deglycosylated hCG at 2.6 A resolution from multiwavelength anomalous diffraction (MAD) measurements of a selenomethionyl hCG crystal. We have also begun three- and four-dimensional structural studies on the biologically active hormone and have determined the structure of the carbohydrate attached to the alpha-subunit. Despite little sequence similarity limited to 10% identity, the alpha and beta subunits of hCG maintain strikingly similar tertiary folds, with cystine-knot motifs at cores of extended hairpin loops. Structural and sequence comparisons indicate an evolutionary homology between the glycoprotein hormone chains and other cystine-knot proteins, notably PDGF, TGF-beta, and NGF. This structural similarity has led us to speculate that early hCG secretion has a broader role than solely the stimulation of the corpus luteum; indeed, levels of hCG, which rise rapidly in the circulation after implantation, are greater than the levels necessary for corpus luteum function. One such role of hCG or its subunits could be as a growth factor that facilitates endometrial receptivity. Our studies of hCG have also identified structural variants, notably in the carbohydrate moiety, that are distinctive for patients with a variety of disorders of pregnancy, including hydatidiform mole and choriocarcinoma. We have also focused our efforts on using information gleaned from the structure of hCG for the design of drug-like molecules that might serve as either agonists or antagonists of hCG. To facilitate these experiments, we have designed a rapid screen for the identification of molecules that might bind the hCG receptor by identifying compounds that disrupt binding of hCG to its receptor. This screen employs a filamentous phage that displays the extracellular domain of the hCG receptor on its surface. Thus far, we have identified a few compounds that disrupt binding of hCG with its receptor at a concentration of approximately 1 micromolar. These "lead" molecules are currently being modified in an attempt to identify a molecule that can disrupt binding of hCG at nanomolar concentrations.