Combined Free-Energy Calculation and Machine Learning Methods for Understanding Ligand Unbinding Kinetics

Magd Badaoui, Pedro J. Buigues, Dénes Berta, Gaurav M. Mandana, Hankang Gu, Tamás Földes, Callum J. Dickson, Viktor Hornak, Mitsunori Kato, Carla Molteni, Simon Parsons, Edina Rosta*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)
94 Downloads (Pure)


The determination of drug residence times, which define the time an inhibitor is in complex with its target, is a fundamental part of the drug discovery process. Synthesis and experimental measurements of kinetic rate constants are, however, expensive and time consuming. In this work, we aimed to obtain drug residence times computationally. Furthermore, we propose a novel algorithm to identify molecular design objectives based on ligand unbinding kinetics. We designed an enhanced sampling technique to accurately predict the free-energy profiles of the ligand unbinding process, focusing on the free-energy barrier for unbinding. Our method first identifies unbinding paths determining a corresponding set of internal coordinates (ICs) that form contacts between the protein and the ligand; it then iteratively updates these interactions during a series of biased molecular dynamics (MD) simulations to reveal the ICs that are important for the whole of the unbinding process. Subsequently, we performed finite-temperature string simulations to obtain the free-energy barrier for unbinding using the set of ICs as a complex reaction coordinate. Importantly, we also aimed to enable the further design of drugs focusing on improved residence times. To this end, we developed a supervised machine learning (ML) approach with inputs from unbiased "downhill"trajectories initiated near the transition state (TS) ensemble of the string unbinding path. We demonstrate that our ML method can identify key ligand-protein interactions driving the system through the TS. Some of the most important drugs for cancer treatment are kinase inhibitors. One of these kinase targets is cyclin-dependent kinase 2 (CDK2), an appealing target for anticancer drug development. Here, we tested our method using two different CDK2 inhibitors for the potential further development of these compounds. We compared the free-energy barriers obtained from our calculations with those observed in available experimental data. We highlighted important interactions at the distal ends of the ligands that can be targeted for improved residence times. Our method provides a new tool to determine unbinding rates and to identify key structural features of the inhibitors that can be used as starting points for novel design strategies in drug discovery.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2543-2555
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Chemical Theory and Computation
Issue number4
Early online date23 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - 12 Apr 2022


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