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1.  Divergent Modes of Enzyme Inhibition in a Homologous Structure-Activity Series 
Journal of medicinal chemistry  2009;52(16):5005-5008.
A docking screen identified reversible, non-covalent inhibitors (e.g. 1) of the parasite cysteine protease cruzain. Chemical optimization of 1 led to a series of oxadiazoles possessing interpretable SAR and potencies as much as 500-fold greater than 1. Detailed investigation of the SAR series subsequently revealed that many members of the oxadiazole class (and surprisingly also 1) act via divergent modes of inhibition – competitive or via colloidal aggregation – depending on the assay conditions employed.
PMCID: PMC3760508  PMID: 19637873
2.  The Impact of Introducing a Histidine into an Apolar Cavity Site on Docking and Ligand Recognition 
Journal of Medicinal Chemistry  2013;56(7):2874-2884.
Simplified model binding sites allow one to isolate entangled terms in molecular energy functions. Here, we investigate the effects on ligand recognition of the introduction of a histidine into a hydrophobic cavity in lysozyme. We docked 656040 molecules and tested 26 highly and nine poorly ranked. Twenty-one highly ranked molecules bound and five were false positives, while three poorly ranked molecules were false negatives. In the 16 X-ray complexes now known, the docking predictions overlaid well with the crystallographic results. Although ligand enrichment was high, the false negatives, the false positives, and the inability to rank order illuminated weaknesses in our scoring, particularly overweighed apolar and underweighted polar terms. Adjusting these led to new problems, reflecting the entangled nature of docking scoring functions. Changes in ligand affinity relative to other lysozyme cavities speak to the subtleties of molecular recognition even in these simple sites and to their relevance for testing different models of recognition.
PMCID: PMC3624796  PMID: 23473072
3.  Benchmarking Sets for Molecular Docking 
Journal of Medicinal Chemistry  2006;49(23):6789-6801.
Ligand enrichment among top-ranking hits is a key metric of molecular docking. To avoid bias, decoys should resemble ligands physically, so that enrichment is not simply a separation of gross features, yet be chemically distinct from them, so that they are unlikely to be binders. We have assembled a directory of useful decoys (DUD), with 2950 ligands for 40 different targets. Every ligand has 36 decoy molecules that are physically similar but topologically distinct, leading to a database of 98,266 compounds. For most targets, enrichment was at least half a log better with uncorrected databases such as the MDDR than with DUD, evidence of bias in the former. These calculations also allowed forty-by-forty cross docking, where the enrichments of each ligand set could be compared for all 40 targets, enabling a specificity metric for the docking screens. DUD is freely available online as a benchmarking set for docking at
PMCID: PMC3383317  PMID: 17154509
virtual screening; molecular docking; docking decoy; automation; enrichment; binding pose
4.  Design, synthesis, crystal structures and antimicrobial activity of sulfonamide boronic acids as β-lactamase inhibitors 
Journal of medicinal chemistry  2010;53(21):7852-7863.
We investigated a series of sulfonamide boronic acids that resulted from the merging of two unrelated AmpC β-lactamase inhibitor series. The new boronic acids differed in the replacement of the canonical carboxamide, found in all penicillin and cephalosporin antibiotics, with a sulfonamide. Surprisingly, these sulfonamides had a highly distinct structure-activity relationship from the previously explored carboxamides, high ligand efficiencies (up to 0.91), Ki values down to 25 nM and up to 23 times better for smaller analogs. Conversely, Ki values were 10 to 20 times worse for larger molecules than in the carboxamide congener series. X-ray crystal structures (1.6–1.8 Å) of AmpC with three of the new sulfonamides suggest that this altered structure-activity relationship results from the different geometry and polarity of the sulfonamide versus the carboxamide. The most potent inhibitor reversed β-lactamase-mediated resistance to third generation cephalosporins, lowering their minimum inhibitory concentrations up to 32-fold in cell culture.
PMCID: PMC3166525  PMID: 20945905
AmpC; structure-based inhibitor design; structure-based drug discovery; β-lactamase inhibition; X-ray crystallography; antimicrobial; antibiotic resistance
5.  Prediction and evaluation of protein farnesyltransferase inhibition by commercial drugs 
Journal of medicinal chemistry  2010;53(6):2464-2471.
The Similarity Ensemble Approach (SEAa) relates proteins based on the set-wise chemical similarity among their ligands. It can be used to rapidly search large compound databases and to build cross-target similarity maps. The emerging maps relate targets in ways that reveal relationships one might not recognize based on sequence or structural similarities alone. SEA has previously revealed cross talk between drugs acting primarily on G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). Here we used SEA to look for potential off-target inhibition of the enzyme protein farnesyltransferase (PFTase) by commercially available drugs. The inhibition of PFTase has profound consequences for oncogenesis, as well as a number of other diseases. In the present study, two commercial drugs, Loratadine and Miconazole, were identified as potential ligands for PFTase and subsequently confirmed as such experimentally. These results point towards the applicability of SEA for the prediction of not only GPCR-GPCR drug cross talk, but also GPCR-enzyme and enzyme-enzyme drug cross talk.
PMCID: PMC2867455  PMID: 20180535
6.  Identification and Optimization of Inhibitors of Trypanosomal Cysteine Proteases: Cruzain, Rhodesain, and TbCatB 
Journal of medicinal chemistry  2010;53(1):52-60.
Trypanosoma cruzi and Trypanosoma brucei are parasites that cause Chagas’ disease and African sleeping sickness, respectively. Both parasites rely on essential cysteine proteases for survival, cruzain for T. cruzi and TbCatB/rhodesain for T. brucei. A recent quantitative high-throughput screen of cruzain identified triazine nitriles, which are known inhibitors of other cysteine proteases, as reversible inhibitors of the enzyme. Structural modifications detailed herein, including core scaffold modification from triazine to purine, improved the in vitro potency against both cruzain and rhodesain by 350-fold, while also gaining activity against T. brucei parasites. Selected compounds were screened against a panel of human cysteine and serine proteases to determine selectivity, and a co-crystal was obtained of our most potent analog bound to Cruzain.
PMCID: PMC2804034  PMID: 19908842
7.  Quantitative Analyses of Aggregation, Autofluorescence, and Reactivity Artifacts in a Screen for Inhibitors of a Thiol Protease 
Journal of medicinal chemistry  2010;53(1):37-51.
The perceived and actual burden of false positives in high-throughput screening has received considerable attention; however, few studies exist on the contributions of distinct mechanisms of non-specific effects like chemical reactivity, assay signal interference, and colloidal aggregation. Here, we analyze the outcome of a screen of 197,861 diverse compounds in a concentration-response format against the cysteine protease cruzain, a target expected to be particularly sensitive to reactive compounds and using an assay format with light detection in the short-wavelength region where significant compound autofluorescence is typically encountered. Approximately 1.9% of all compounds screened were detergent-sensitive inhibitors. The contribution from autofluorescence and compounds bearing reactive functionalities was dramatically lower: of all hits, only 1.8% were autofluorescent and 1.48% contained reactive or undesired functional groups. The distribution of false positives was relatively constant across library sources. The simple step of including detergent in the assay buffer suppressed the nonspecific effect of approximately 93% of the original hits.
PMCID: PMC2992957  PMID: 19908840
8.  Exploiting Ordered Waters in Molecular Docking 
Journal of medicinal chemistry  2008;51(16):4862-4865.
A current weakness in docking is the treatment of water-mediated protein–ligand interactions. We explore switching ordered water molecules “on” and “off” during docking screens of a large library. The method assumes additivity and scales linearly with the number of waters sampled despite the exponential growth in configurations. It is tested for ligand enrichment against 24 targets, exploring up to 256 water configurations. Water inclusion increased enrichment substantially for 12 targets, while most others were largely unaffected.
PMCID: PMC2719016  PMID: 18680357
9.  Comprehensive Mechanistic Analysis of Hits from High-Throughput and Docking Screens against β-Lactamase 
Journal of medicinal chemistry  2008;51(8):2502-2511.
High-throughput screening (HTS) is widely used in drug discovery. Especially for screens of unbiased libraries, false positives can dominate “hit lists”; their origins are much debated. Here we determine the mechanism of every active hit from a screen of 70,563 unbiased molecules against β-lactamase using quantitative HTS (qHTS). Of the 1274 initial inhibitors, 95% were detergent-sensitive and were classified as aggregators. Among the 70 remaining were 25 potent, covalent-acting β-lactams. Mass spectra, counter-screens, and crystallography identified 12 as promiscuous covalent inhibitors. The remaining 33 were either aggregators or irreproducible. No specific reversible inhibitors were found. We turned to molecular docking to prioritize molecules from the same library for testing at higher concentrations. Of 16 tested, 2 were modest inhibitors. Subsequent X-ray structures corresponded to the docking prediction. Analog synthesis improved affinity to 8 µM. These results suggest that it may be the physical behavior of organic molecules, not their reactivity, that accounts for most screening artifacts. Structure-based methods may prioritize weak-but-novel chemotypes in unbiased library screens.
PMCID: PMC2655312  PMID: 18333608
10.  Promiscuous Aggregate-Based Inhibitors Promote Enzyme Unfolding 
Journal of Medicinal Chemistry  2009;52(7):2067-2075.
One of the leading sources of false positives in early drug discovery is the formation of organic small molecule aggregates, which inhibit enzymes nonspecifically at micromolar concentrations in aqueous solution. The molecular basis for this widespread problem remains hazy. To investigate the mechanism of inhibition at a molecular level, we determined changes in solvent accessibility that occur when an enzyme binds to an aggregate using hydrogen−deuterium exchange mass spectrometry. For AmpC β-lactamase, binding to aggregates of the small molecule rottlerin increased the deuterium exchange of all 10 reproducibly detectable peptides, which covered 41% of the sequence of β-lactamase. This suggested a global increase in proton accessibility upon aggregate binding, consistent with denaturation. We then investigated whether enzyme−aggregate complexes were more susceptible to proteolysis than uninhibited enzyme. For five aggregators, trypsin degradation of β-lactamase increased substantially when β-lactamase was inhibited by aggregates, whereas uninhibited enzyme was generally stable to digestion. Combined, these results suggest that the mechanism of action of aggregate-based inhibitors proceeds via partial protein unfolding when bound to an aggregate particle.
PMCID: PMC2664636  PMID: 19281222
11.  Decoys for Docking 
Journal of medicinal chemistry  2005;48(11):3714-3728.
Molecular docking is widely used to predict novel lead compounds for drug discovery. Success depends on the quality of the docking scoring function, among other factors. An imperfect scoring function can mislead by predicting incorrect ligand geometries or by selecting nonbinding molecules over true ligands. These false-positive hits may be considered “decoys”. Although these decoys are frustrating, they potentially provide important tests for a docking algorithm; the more subtle the decoy, the more rigorous the test. Indeed, decoy databases have been used to improve protein structure prediction algorithms and protein–protein docking algorithms. Here, we describe 20 geometric decoys in five enzymes and 166 “hit list” decoys–i.e., molecules predicted to bind by our docking program that were tested and found not to do so–for β-lactamase and two cavity sites in lysozyme. Especially in the cavity sites, which are very simple, these decoys highlight particular weaknesses in our scoring function. We also consider the performance of five other widely used docking scoring functions against our geometric and hit list decoys. Intriguingly, whereas many of these other scoring functions performed better on the geometric decoys, they typically performed worse on the hit list decoys, often highly ranking molecules that seemed to poorly complement the model sites. Several of these “hits” from the other scoring functions were tested experimentally and found, in fact, to be decoys. Collectively, these decoys provide a tool for the development and improvement of molecular docking scoring functions. Such improvements may, in turn, be rapidly tested experimentally against these and related experimental systems, which are well-behaved in assays and for structure determination.
PMCID: PMC1557646  PMID: 15916423
12.  Soft Docking and Multiple Receptor Conformations in Virtual Screening 
Journal of medicinal chemistry  2004;47(21):5076-5084.
Protein conformational change is an important consideration in ligand-docking screens, but it is difficult to predict. A simple way to account for protein flexibility is to soften the criterion for steric fit between ligand and receptor. A more comprehensive but more expensive method would be to sample multiple receptor conformations explicitly. Here, these two approaches are compared. A “soft” scoring function was created by attenuating the repulsive term in the Lennard-Jones potential, allowing for a closer approach between ligand and protein. The standard, “hard” Lennard-Jones potential was used for docking to multiple receptor conformations. The Available Chemicals Directory (ACD) was screened against two cavity sites in the T4 lysozyme. These sites undergo small but significant conformational changes on ligand binding, making them good systems for soft docking. The ACD was also screened against the drug target aldose reductase, which can undergo large conformational changes on ligand binding. We evaluated the ability of the scoring functions to identify known ligands from among the over 200 000 decoy molecules in the database. The soft potential was always better at identifying known ligands than the hard scoring function when only a single receptor conformation was used. Conversely, the soft function was worse at identifying known leads than the hard function when multiple receptor conformations were used. This was true even for the cavity sites and was especially true for aldose reductase. To test the multiple-conformation method predictively, we screened the ACD for molecules that preferentially docked to the expanded conformation of aldose reductase, known to bind larger ligands. Six novel molecules that ranked among the top 0.66% of hits from the multiple-conformation calculation, but ranked relatively poorly in the soft docking calculation, were tested experimentally for enzyme inhibition. Four of these six inhibited the enzyme, the best with an IC50 of 8 μM. Although ligands can get better scores in soft docking, the same is also true for decoys. The improved ranking of such decoys can come at the expense of true ligands.
PMCID: PMC1413506  PMID: 15456251
13.  Synergy and Antagonism of Promiscuous Inhibition in Multiple-Compound Mixtures 
Journal of medicinal chemistry  2006;49(7):2151-2154.
Screening in mixtures is a common approach for increasing the efficiency of high-throughput screening. Here we investigate how the “compound load” of mixtures influences promiscuous aggregate-based inhibition. We screened 764 molecules individually and in mixtures of 10 at 5 μM each, comparing the observed inhibition of the mixtures to that predicted from single-compound results. Synergistic effects on aggregation predominated, although antagonism was also observed. These results suggest that screening mixtures can increase aggregation-based inhibition in a nonadditive manner.
PMCID: PMC1540993  PMID: 16570910
14.  Colloidal Aggregation Causes Inhibition of G Protein-Coupled Receptors 
Journal of Medicinal Chemistry  2013;56(6):2406-2414.
Colloidal aggregation is the dominant mechanism for artifactual inhibition of soluble proteins, and controls against it are now widely deployed. Conversely, investigating this mechanism for membrane-bound receptors has proven difficult. Here we investigate the activity of four well-characterized aggregators against three G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) recognizing peptide and protein ligands. Each of the aggregators was active at micromolar concentrations against the three GPCRs in cell-based assays. This activity could be attenuated by either centrifugation of the inhibitor stock solution or by addition of Tween-80 detergent. In the absence of agonist, the aggregators acted as inverse agonists, consistent with a direct receptor interaction. Meanwhile, several literature GPCR ligands that resemble aggregators themselves formed colloids, by both physical and enzymological tests. These observations suggest that some GPCRs may be artifactually antagonized by colloidal aggregates, an effect that merits the attention of investigators in this field.
PMCID: PMC3613083  PMID: 23437772
15.  Automated Docking Screens: A Feasibility Study 
Journal of Medicinal Chemistry  2009;52(18):5712-5720.
Molecular docking is the most practical approach to leverage protein structure for ligand discovery, but the technique retains important liabilities that make it challenging to deploy on a large scale. We have therefore created an expert system, DOCK Blaster, to investigate the feasibility of full automation. The method requires a PDB code, sometimes with a ligand structure, and from that alone can launch a full screen of large libraries. A critical feature is self-assessment, which estimates the anticipated reliability of the automated screening results using pose fidelity and enrichment. Against common benchmarks, DOCK Blaster recapitulates the crystal ligand pose within 2 Å rmsd 50−60% of the time; inferior to an expert, but respectrable. Half the time the ligand also ranked among the top 5% of 100 physically matched decoys chosen on the fly. Further tests were undertaken culminating in a study of 7755 eligible PDB structures. In 1398 cases, the redocked ligand ranked in the top 5% of 100 property-matched decoys while also posing within 2 Å rmsd, suggesting that unsupervised prospective docking is viable. DOCK Blaster is available at
PMCID: PMC2745826  PMID: 19719084
16.  Structure-Based Discovery of A2A Adenosine Receptor Ligands 
Journal of Medicinal Chemistry  2010;53(9):3748-3755.
The recent determination of X-ray structures of pharmacologically relevant GPCRs has made these targets accessible to structure-based ligand discovery. Here we explore whether novel chemotypes may be discovered for the A2A adenosine receptor, based on complementarity to its recently determined structure. The A2A adenosine receptor signals in the periphery and the CNS, with agonists explored as anti-inflammatory drugs and antagonists explored for neurodegenerative diseases. We used molecular docking to screen a 1.4 million compound database against the X-ray structure computationally and tested 20 high-ranking, previously unknown molecules experimentally. Of these 35% showed substantial activity with affinities between 200 nM and 9 μM. For the most potent of these new inhibitors, over 50-fold specificity was observed for the A2A versus the related A1 and A3 subtypes. These high hit rates and affinities at least partly reflect the bias of commercial libraries toward GPCR-like chemotypes, an issue that we attempt to investigate quantitatively. Despite this bias, many of the most potent new ligands were novel, dissimilar from known ligands, providing new lead structures for modulation of this medically important target.
PMCID: PMC2865168  PMID: 20405927
17.  Colloid Formation by Drugs in Simulated Intestinal Fluid 
Journal of Medicinal Chemistry  2010;53(10):4259-4265.
Many organic molecules form colloidal aggregates in aqueous solution at micromolar concentrations. These aggregates promiscuously inhibit soluble proteins and are a major source of false positives in high-throughput screening. Several drugs also form colloidal aggregates, and there has been speculation that this may affect the absorption and distribution of at least one drug in vivo. Here we investigate the ability of drugs to form aggregates in simulated intestinal fluid. Thirty-three Biopharmaceutics Classification System (BCS) class II and class IV drugs, spanning multiple pharmacological activities, were tested for promiscuous aggregation in biochemical buffers. The 22 that behaved as aggregators were then tested for colloid formation in simulated intestinal fluid, a buffer mimicking conditions in the small intestine. Six formed colloids at concentrations equal to or lower than the concentrations reached in the gut, suggesting that aggregation may have an effect on the absorption and distribution of these drugs, and potentially others, in vivo.
PMCID: PMC2874266  PMID: 20426472
18.  Complementarity Between a Docking and a High-Throughput Screen in Discovering New Cruzain Inhibitors† 
Journal of Medicinal Chemistry  2010;53(13):4891-4905.
Virtual and high-throughput screens (HTS) should have complementary strengths and weaknesses, but studies that prospectively and comprehensively compare them are rare. We undertook a parallel docking and HTS screen of 197861 compounds against cruzain, a thiol protease target for Chagas disease, looking for reversible, competitive inhibitors. On workup, 99% of the hits were eliminated as false positives, yielding 146 well-behaved, competitive ligands. These fell into five chemotypes: two were prioritized by scoring among the top 0.1% of the docking-ranked library, two were prioritized by behavior in the HTS and by clustering, and one chemotype was prioritized by both approaches. Determination of an inhibitor/cruzain crystal structure and comparison of the high-scoring docking hits to experiment illuminated the origins of docking false-negatives and false-positives. Prioritizing molecules that are both predicted by docking and are HTS-active yields well-behaved molecules, relatively unobscured by the false-positives to which both techniques are individually prone.
PMCID: PMC2895358  PMID: 20540517

Results 1-18 (18)