This paper was published in BioRxiv in October 2018.


Understanding molecular recognition of proteins by small molecules is key for drug design. Despite the number of experimental structures of ligand-protein complexes keeps growing, the number of available targets remains limited compared to the druggable genome, and structural diversity is generally low, which affects the chemical variance of putative lead compounds. From a computational perspective, molecular docking is widely used to mimic ligand-protein association in silico. Ensemble-docking approaches include flexibility through a set of different conformations of the protein obtained either experimentally or from computer simulations, e.g. molecular dynamics. However, structures prone to host (the correct) ligands are generally poorly sampled by standard molecular dynamics simulations of the apo protein. In order to address this limitation, we introduce a computational approach based on metadynamics simulations (EDES: Ensemble-Docking with Enhanced-sampling of pocket Shape) to generate druggable conformations of proteins only exploiting their apo structures. This is achieved by defining a set of collective variables that effectively sample different shapes of the binding site, ultimately mimicking the steric effect due to ligands to generate holo-like binding site geometries. We assessed the method on two challenging proteins undergoing different extents of conformational changes upon ligand binding. In both cases our protocol generated a significant fraction of structures featuring a low RMSD from the experimental holo conformation. Moreover, ensemble docking calculations using those conformations yielded native-like poses among the top ranked ones for both targets. This proof of concept study paves the route towards an automated workflow to generate druggable conformations of proteins, which should become a precious tool for structure-based drug design.