Potential Drug Candidates for SARS-CoV-2 Using Computational Screening and Enhanced Sampling Methods
Here, we report new chemical entities that exhibit highly specific binding to the 3-chymotrypsin-like cysteine protease (3CLpro) present in the novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Because the viral 3CLpro protein controls coronavirus replication, 3CLpro is identified as a target for drug molecules. We implemented an enhanced sampling method in combination with molecular dynamics and docking to reduce the computational screening search space to four molecules that could be synthesized and tested against SARS-CoV-2. Our computational method is much more robust than any other method available for drug screening (e.g., docking) because of sampling of the free energy surface of the binding site of the protein (including the ligand) and use of explicit solvent. We have considered all possible interactions between all the atoms present in the protein, ligands, and water. Using high-performance computing with graphical processing units, we were able to perform a large number of simulations within a month and converge the results to the four most strongly bound ligands (based on free energy and other scores) from a set of 17 ligands with lower docking scores. Additionally, we have considered N3 and 13b α-ketoamide inhibitors as controls for which experimental crystal structures are available. Out of the top four ligands, PI-06 was found to have a higher screening score compared to the controls. Based on our results and analysis, we confidently claim that we have identified four potential ligands, out of which one ligand is the best choice based on free energy and the most promising candidate for further synthesis and testing against SARS-CoV-2.