A Target-Based Method for Designing Heterochiral Cyclic Peptide Binders: De Novo Inhibitors of the PD-1/PD-L1 Interaction

Peptides, together with antibodies, are among the most potent biochemical tools to modulate challenging protein-protein interactions. However, current structure-based methods are largely limited to natural peptides and are not suitable for designing target-specific binders with improved pharmaceutical properties, such as macrocyclic peptides. Here we report a general framework that leverages the computational power of Rosetta for large-scale backbone sampling and energy scoring, followed by side-chain composition, to design heterochiral cyclic peptides that bind to a protein surface of interest. To showcase the applicability of our approach, we identified two peptides (PD-i3 and PD-i6) that target PD-1, a key immune checkpoint, and work as protein ligand decoys. A comprehensive biophysical evaluation confirmed their binding mechanism to PD-1 and their inhibitory effect on the PD-1/PD-L1 interaction. Finally, elucidation of their solution structures by NMR served as validation of our de novo design approach. We anticipate that our results will provide a general framework for designing target-specific drug-like peptides.