COVID-19 will be with us for some time. Despite the unprecedented speed of vaccine development, it is worth remembering that humanity has only truly eradicated two widespread viral diseases, smallpox and rinderpest. Thus, the long march of small molecule drug discovery against SARS-CoV-2 is justified. In a paper recently posted on bioRxiv, Ivan Ahel and more than 50 multinational collaborators take the first steps.
Last year we highlighted two independent crystallographic screens against the main protease of SARS-CoV-2. Another potential viral target is the macrodomain (Mac1) portion of non-structural protein 3 (Nsp3), an enzyme which clips ADP-ribose from modified proteins, thus helping the virus evade the immune response.
The researchers soaked crystals of Mac1 against a total of 2683 fragments curated from several collections. This yielded 214 hits, and most of the structures were solved at high resolution (better than 1.35 Å). About 80% of the fragments bound in the active site, with many binding in the adenosine sub-pocket. Two different crystal forms were used for soaking, and one set of 320 fragments was soaked against both. Interestingly, this yielded a hit rate of 21% for one crystal form and just 1.3% for the other. Even more surprising, of the five hits found in both crystal forms, only two bound in the same manner in both. This is a clear demonstration that it is worth investing up-front effort to develop a suitable crystal form of a protein before rushing into soaking experiments.
Independently, the researchers computationally screened more than 20 million fragments (mostly from ZINC15) against the protein using DOCK3.7, a process which took just under 5 hours on a 500-core computer cluster. Of 60 top hits chosen for crystallographic soaking, 20 yielded structures, all at high resolution (0.94-1.01 Å). The ultra-high resolution structures revealed that four fragments had misassigned structures (wrong isomers), which long-time readers may not find surprising. Importantly, most of the 20 experimentally determined structures confirmed the docking predictions.
A strength and weakness of crystallographic screening is that it can find extraordinarily weak binders, which may be difficult to optimize. To see whether they could independently verify binding, the researchers tested 54 of the docking hits in a differential scanning fluorimetry (DSF) assay. Ten increased thermal stability, and all of these had yielded crystal structures. Only four of 19 fragments tested yielded reliable data in isothermal titration calorimetry (ITC) assays, but encouragingly these four also gave among the most significant thermal shifts in the DSF assay. Finally, 57 of the docking hits and 18 of the crystallographic hits were tested in a homogenous time-resolved fluorescence (HTRF) based peptide-displacement assay, yielding 8 and 3 hits respectively, the best with an IC50 of 180 µM.
This paper is a tour de force, and may represent the largest collection of high-resolution crystallographic fragment hits against any target. Laudably, all 234 of the crystal structures have been released in the public domain, and the researchers have already suggested ideas for merging and linking. As they point out, many of the fragments bind in the adenine pocket, so selectivity will be an issue not just against human macrodomains but also against kinases and other ATP-dependent enzymes. Still, as the dozens of approved kinases inhibitors demonstrate, achieving selectivity is possible.
From a technology perspective, this publication affirms the rising power of both crystallographic and computational screening. Indeed, the hundreds of crystal structures will themselves be useful input for training new computational methods. And from a drug discovery perspective, each of these fragments represents a potential starting point for SARS-CoV-2 leads.
Let’s get busy!