Accelerating Cryptic Pocket Discovery Using AlphaFold

Cryptic pockets, or pockets absent in ligand-free, experimentally determined structures, hold great potential as drug targets. However, cryptic pocket openings are often beyond the reach of conventional biomolecular simulations because certain cryptic pocket openings involve slow motions. Here, we investigate whether AlphaFold can be used to accelerate cryptic pocket discovery either by generating structures with open pockets directly or generating structures with partially open pockets that can be used as starting points for simulations. We use AlphaFold to generate ensembles for 10 known cryptic pocket examples, including five that were deposited after AlphaFold’s training data were extracted from the PDB. We find that in 6 out of 10 cases AlphaFold samples the open state. For plasmepsin II, an aspartic protease from the causative agent of malaria, AlphaFold only captures a partial pocket opening. As a result, we ran simulations from an ensemble of AlphaFold-generated structures and show that this strategy samples cryptic pocket opening, even though an equivalent amount of simulations launched from a ligand-free experimental structure fails to do so. Markov state models (MSMs) constructed from the AlphaFold-seeded simulations quickly yield a free energy landscape of cryptic pocket opening that is in good agreement with the same landscape generated with well-tempered metadynamics. Taken together, our results demonstrate that AlphaFold has a useful role to play in cryptic pocket discovery but that many cryptic pockets may remain difficult to sample using AlphaFold alone.

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