PUBLICATION: The critical role of QM/MM X-ray refinement and accurate tautomer/protomer determination in structure-based drug design

Abstract: Conventional protein:ligand crystallographic refinement uses stereochemistry restraints coupled with a rudimentary energy functional to ensure the correct geometry of the model of the macromolecule—along with any bound ligand(s)—within the context of the experimental, X-ray density. These methods generally lack explicit terms for electrostatics, polarization, dispersion, hydrogen bonds, and other key interactions, and instead they use pre-determined parameters (e.g. bond lengths, angles, and torsions) to drive structural refinement. In order to address this deficiency and obtain a more complete and ultimately more accurate structure, we have developed an automated approach for macromolecular refinement based on a two layer, QM/MM (ONIOM) scheme as implemented within our DivCon Discovery Suite and “plugged in” to two mainstream crystallographic packages: PHENIX and BUSTER. This implementation is able to use one or more region layer(s), which is(are) characterized using linear-scaling, semi-empirical quantum mechanics, followed by a system layer which includes the balance of the model and which is described using a molecular mechanics functional. In this work, we applied our Phenix/DivCon refinement method—coupled with our XModeScore method for experimental tautomer/protomer state determination—to the characterization of structure sets relevant to structure-based drug design (SBDD). We then use these newly refined structures to show the impact of QM/MM X-ray refined structure on our understanding of function by exploring the influence of these improved structures on protein:ligand binding affinity prediction (and we likewise show how we use post-refinement scoring outliers to inform subsequent X-ray crystallographic efforts). Through this endeavor, we demonstrate a computational chemistry ↔ structural biology (X-ray crystallography) “feedback loop” which has utility in industrial and academic pharmaceutical research as well as other allied fields.

Authors: Oleg Y. Borbulevych, Roger I. Martin and Lance M. Westerhoff

Reference: J Comput Aided Mol Des 35, 433–451 (2021)