Establishing an Analogue Based In Silico Pipeline in the Pursuit of Novel Inhibitory Scaffolds against the SARS Coronavirus 2 Papain-Like Protease.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been a burden on the worldwide population, with mass fatalities and devastating socioeconomic consequences. It has particularly drawn attention to the lack of approved small-molecule drugs to inhibit SARS coronaviruses. Importantly, lessons learned from the SARS outbreak of 2002-2004, caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 1 (SARS-CoV-1), can be applied to current drug discovery ventures. SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 both possess two cysteine proteases, the main protease (Mpro) and the papain-like protease (PLpro), which play a significant role in facilitating viral replication, and are important drug targets. The non-covalent inhibitor, GRL-0617, which was found to inhibit replication of SARS-CoV-1, and more recently SARS-CoV-2, is the only PLpro inhibitor co-crystallised with the recently solved SARS-CoV-2 PLpro crystal structure. Therefore, the GRL-0617 structural template and pharmacophore features are instrumental in the design and development of more potent PLpro inhibitors. In this work, we conducted scaffold hopping using GRL-0617 as a reference to screen over 339,000 ligands in the chemical space using the ChemDiv, MayBridge, and Enamine screening libraries. Twenty-four distinct scaffolds with structural and electrostatic similarity to GRL-0617 were obtained. These proceeded to molecular docking against PLpro using the AutoDock tools. Of two compounds that showed the most favourable predicted binding affinities to the target site, as well as comparable protein-ligand interactions to GRL-0617, one was chosen for further analogue-based work. Twenty-seven analogues of this compound were further docked against the PLpro, which resulted in two additional hits with promising docking profiles. Our in silico pipeline consisted of an integrative four-step approach: (1) ligand-based virtual screening (scaffold-hopping), (2) molecular docking, (3) an analogue search, and, (4) evaluation of scaffold drug-likeness, to identify promising scaffolds and eliminate those with undesirable properties. Overall, we present four novel, and lipophilic, scaffolds obtained from an exhaustive search of diverse and uncharted regions of chemical space, which may be further explored in vitro through structure-activity relationship (SAR) studies in the search for more potent inhibitors. Furthermore, these scaffolds were predicted to have fewer off-target interactions than GRL-0617. Lastly, to our knowledge, this work contains the largest ligand-based virtual screen performed against GRL-0617.