Say you have a protein target, and you want to know whether you will be able to find small molecules that bind to it. A fragment screen can give you a good idea as to the likelihood of success: if you find lots of different fragments with high affinities (say, better than < 0.1 mM), your protein is likely to be highly “ligandable.” On the other hand, if you get very few fragments, and most of them are weak (> 1mM), be prepared for a slog.
Of course, it would be even better if you didn’t have to do a physical screen at all, and two recent papers show how a computational approach may be sufficient. The first, by Dima Kozakov, Sandor Vajda, and their collaborators at Boston University and Acpharis is a detailed how-to guide in Nature Protocols. The second, in Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA by Dima Kozakov, Adrian Whitty, and Sandor Vajda and their collaborators at Boston University, Northeastern University, and Acpharis, addresses some interesting questions about fragment binding.
The main program is called FTMap (also highlighted here); it and several related programs are accessible through a free web server. It is remarkably easy to use: just provide a protein data bank (PDB) ID or upload your own structure and away it goes.
The program works by docking a set of 16 virtual probes (such as ethanol, acetonitrile, acetamide – the largest molecule is benzaldehyde) against a protein and looking for “hot spots” where many fragments cluster. Previously the researchers demonstrated that known ligand-binding sites in proteins tend to be computational hot spots, where at least 16 probes bind. (Note that due to their small size, multiple probes of the same type – acetone, for example – can bind within the same hot spot simultaneously.) In other words,
The strongest hot spot tends to bind many different fragment structures, acting as a general “attractor.”
On the other hand, a hot spot with fewer probe molecules is unlikely to have enough inherent binding affinity to bind to ligands with low micromolar or better affinity.
A related program is called FTSite, which focuses on more thoroughly characterizing the best binding sites. Other programs allow for protein side chain flexibility, docking custom probes, or docking against ensembles of protein models such as generated by NMR structural methods.
The PNAS paper goes further to ask about ligand deconstruction. Specifically, why is it that when a larger ligand is dissected into component fragments, sometimes the fragments recapitulate the binding modes seen in the larger molecule, and sometimes they do not? The answer:
Because a substantial fraction of the binding free energy is due to protein-ligand interactions within the main hot spot, a fragment that overlaps well with this hot spot and retains the interacting functional groups will retain its binding mode when the rest of the ligand is removed.
The researchers support this assertion by examining eight literature examples in which structural information was available for fragments and larger ligands (some of which we’ve covered here, here, and here). In cases where the isolated fragments overlapped with 80% of atoms in probe molecules within a given hot spot, the fragment binding mode remained conserved. Also, these fragments tended to have high ligand efficiency values.