Ernest Awoonor-Williams, Abd Al-Aziz A. Abu-Saleh
Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys., 2021
COVID-19, the disease caused by the newly discovered coronavirus—SARS-CoV-2, has created a global health, social, and economic crisis. As of mid-January 2021, there are over 90 million confirmed cases and more than 2 million reported deaths due to COVID-19. Currently, there are very limited therapeutics for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19. For this reason, it is important to find drug targets that will lead to the development of safe and effective therapeutics against the disease. The main protease (Mpro) of the virus is an attractive target for the development of effective antiviral therapeutics because it is required for proteolytic cleavage of viral polyproteins. Furthermore, the Mpro has no human homologues, so drugs designed to bind to this target directly have less risk for off-target effects. Recently, several high-resolution crystallographic structures of the Mpro in complex with inhibitors have been determined—to guide drug development and to spur efforts in structure-based drug design. One of the primary objectives of modern structure-based drug design is the accurate prediction of receptor–ligand binding affinities for rational drug design and discovery. Here, we perform rigorous alchemical absolute binding free energy calculations and QM/MM calculations to give insight into the total binding energy of two recently crystallized inhibitors of SARS-CoV-2 Mpro, namely, N3 and α-ketoamide 13b. The total binding energy consists of both covalent and non-covalent binding components since both compounds are covalent inhibitors of the Mpro. Our results indicate that the covalent and non-covalent binding free energy contributions of both inhibitors to the Mpro target differ significantly. The N3 inhibitor has more favourable non-covalent interactions, particularly hydrogen bonding, in the binding site of the Mpro than the α-ketoamide inhibitor. Also, the Gibbs energy of reaction for the Mpro–N3 covalent adduct is greater than the Gibbs reaction energy for the Mpro–α-ketoamide covalent adduct. These differences in the covalent and non-covalent binding free energy contributions for both inhibitors could be a plausible explanation for their in vitro differences in antiviral activity. Our findings are consistent with the reversible and irreversible character of both inhibitors as reported by experiment and highlight the importance of both covalent and non-covalent binding free energy contributions to the absolute binding affinity of a covalent inhibitor towards its target. This information could prove useful in the rational design, discovery, and evaluation of potent SARS-CoV-2 Mpro inhibitors for targeted antiviral therapy.