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Our first dabble in #MedChem through #CompChem

We’ve expanded the scope of our research interests from quantum mechanical calculations to docking and MedChem for over a year now; it has been a very interesting ride and a very rich avenue of research to explore. Durbis Castillo has led -out of his own initiative- this project and today he presents us with a guest post on the nuances of his project. Bear in mind that the detail of the calculations and a small -very targeted- tutorial on MAESTRO will be provided later in further posts and that making all this decisions required a long process of trial and error, we can only thank Dr. Antonio Romo for his help in minimizing the time this process took.

HIV is a tricky virus, and even though many of the steps included in its lifecycle are druggable, the chemical machinery making it work has been quite elusive since research groups started studying it. Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) works thanks to the combination of several drugs targeting different proteins such as the HIV protease or reverse transcriptase.

In 1998 the elucidation of the gp120 envelope glycoprotein crystal structure introduced a new step in the drug discovery race: HIV entry. Since drugs targeting gp120 have not been widely explored or developed, we decided to use common methodologies like docking (rigid and fit-induced) and ADME predictions to address the following question: How can we easily discover a molecule that inhibits gp120 binding to the lymphocyte CD4 receptor without having to synthesize it first? The answer was to perform a virtual screening with a bottleneck methodology based on docking calculations.

Docking methodologies are often looked as insufficient, careless or even unscientific, since the algorithms they are founded upon are not as accurate or descriptive as the ones that support DFT or ab initio calculations, for example. But there is a huge advantage to simpler operations: less computational resources are required. Then, following Russia’s example when making tanks during the WWII, why not make thousands or millions of docking calculations to quickly explore an entire chemical space and find which molecules are more likely to bind the protein?

And this is exactly what we did. We built a piperazine-based dataset of 16.3 million compounds, all of them including fragments that are reported in the medicinal chemistry literature, thus having two main characteristics, synthetic accessibility and pharmacological activity. These 16.3 million compounds were thoroughly filtered through several docking steps, each one of them being more accurate and comprehensive than the previous one, abruptly eliminating poorly fitted molecules, leaving us with a total of 275 candidates that were redocked in a different crystal structure and a different program (consensus docking).

After analyzing the ADME properties of the candidates, with descriptors such as human oral absorption and possible metabolic reactions, as well as the Induced-Fit Docking score of these molecules, ten ligands were selected as the best ones inside the analyzed chemical space. You can see ligand 255 (figure 1) as an example of the molecules that obtained the best scores throughout the docking steps.


Figure 1

Many of the colleague researchers related to this kind of topics asked “Why didn’t you download a set of molecules from Zinc or Maybridge?” And the answer to this question includes three aspects: first we wanted to test a combinatorial approach to drug design, second, we wanted to test whether including a piperazine as the core of the set of molecules would immediately grant them activity and high potency, and finally, a built database will always confer a higher degree of novelty to the possible hits when compared to commercially available compounds whose synthesis has already been developed. However, this last point needs to be addressed by an organic chemist since none of the molecules from our database have ever been synthesized (any takers?).

Right now, we are trying to explore further through molecular dynamics simulations using Desmond and Amber. Other future goals for this project include screening large databases of commercial and novel compounds with gp120 and other proteins involved in the HIV lifecycle. Also, we remain open to collaborate with anyone interested in taking the challenge to synthesize our molecules, as well as performing the biochemical assays to get an idea of their activity.

More details on MD simulations and the path of our first virtual hits to follow. Anyone interested in reading my thesis work can contact me through my linkedin profile at An article is under preparation and will soon be submitted, stay tuned!


Mexican Phys.Chem. Meeting XVth edition 

For the fifth year in a row my research group has participated in this traditional meeting on theoretical and computational chemistry, now at the beautiful city of Merida in southeastern Mexico.

Several distinguished international guests included Profs. Jose Luis Mendoza (Florida State University), Adrián Roitberg (University of Florida), Vincent Ortiz (Auburn University) and Paul Ayers (McMaster U. Canada); Their contributions rounded up nicely those of household names like Drs. Alberto Vela, Gabriel Merino (CINVESTAV) (the latter was also the main organizer), Jesus Hernández-Trujillo (UNAM), Jose Luis Gazquez (UAM-I), Óscar Jimenez (Guanajuato), and so many others who were also present.

My students presented four posters summarized below:

1) Maru Sandoval and Gustavo Mondragón on Photosynthesis, particularly the search for exciton transference mechanisms in both natural and theoretical arrangements of photosynthetic pigments. Some very exciting results have been observed; their publication is really near.

2) Raúl Torres and Gustavo Mondragón presented their work on arsenic removing calixarenes, published earlier this year, and the extension of said work to As(III) acids. Graphene oxide is now considered in our simulations as per the experimental work of our colleagues, Prof. Reyes Sierra and Prof. Eddie Lopez-Honorato.

3) Marco Diaz, Guillermo Caballero, Gustavo Mondragón and Raúl Torres had this poster on the calculation of sigma holes as descriptors for predicting pka values in organic acids. Their +1600 calculations project has found the best levels of theory (and ruled out some like B3LYP, of course) with some nice correlations. Yet, much work is still to be done but we’re on the right track.

4) Durbis Castillo presented his work on molecular docking and dynamics of a large library of HIV-1 entry inhibitors for which he uses the suite MAESTRO as a continuation of another project of ours. His enormous library is now in the hundredths of thousands and although we’re facing some technical difficulties, Durbis is thriving in his search. This is our first serious attempt towards a more mature drug discovery project; a manuscript should be ready in the first part of next year.

This guys and the rest of the lab who weren’t present are the ones who make our research flourish and they’ve all earned a day or two at the beach!

Here’s to fifteen more years of RMFQT!

Two more students graduated!

It is with great pleasure that I’d like to announce the thesis defense of Guillermo “Memo” Caballero and Howard Diaz who in past days became the second and third students, respectively, to get their B.Sc. degrees with theses completed at our lab. I want to publicly thank them for their hard work which hasn’t only contributed with a thesis to our library but will soon contribute with research papers to our count.

Guillermo “Memo” Caballero worked on the calculation of a reaction mechanism that cannot happen. He started as a synthetic chemist and when he hit a wall at the lab he thought computational chemistry might help him get synthesis on the right direction. He has proven now that the aromatization process of a substituted glutarimide into the corresponding pyridine can only proceed only if substituents with a very strong electron withdrawing effect are used. For two reaction mechanisms proposed, both of them intramolecular rearrangements and only one of them concerted, the calculated energy barriers to reach for the corresponding transition states (QST2 and QST3 methods used) are higher than a pyrolitic decomposition. Memo found also that the delocalization of the pi electron system and its extent goes a long way into the stabilization of the non-aromatic analogue. At first we wanted to treat this problem as a tautomeric equilibrium but since we cannot observe the aromatic tautomer there is no equilibrium and hence no tautomerism. We are still thinking how to name this correspondence between the two compounds when we submit the corresponding paper. It must be said that Guillermo graduated with the highest honors in a most deserved way.

Howard Diaz worked on the design of molecular blockers for the entrance process of the HIV-1 virus into lymphocytes through the GP120 protein. Six known blockers based on phenyl-indoyl-urea were assessed through docking, the binding site of the GP120 protein was described in terms of the interactions formed with each on these compounds and that served as the basis for what in the end came up to be a 36 compound library of blockers, whose structures were first optimized at the B3LYP/6-31G** level of theory. All the 42 blockers were docked in the binding site of the protein and a thorough conformational search was performed. From this set, lead compounds were selected in terms of their binding energies (first calculated heuristically) and further studied at the Density Functional Theory, B97D/cc-pVTZ in order to study the electronic structure of the blocker when interacting with a selection of residues at the binding site. Interaction energies calculated at the quantum level are consistent with the complex formation but since we had to cut the protein to only a few residues little correlation is found with the first calculation; this is fine and still publishable, I just wish we had a more seamless transition between heuristics and quantum chemical calculations. Wiberg indexes were very low, as consistent with a hydrophobic cavity, and delocalization energies calculated with second order perturbation theory analysis on the Natural Bond Orbitals revealed that the two most important interactions are C-H…π and Cl…π, these two were selected as key parameters in our design of new drugs for preventing the HIV-1 virus to bind lymphocytes-T; now we only need to have them synthesized and tested (anyone interested?).

Thank you guys for all your hard work, it has truly payed off. I’m completely certain that no matter what you do and where you go you will be very successful in your careers and I wish you nothing but the very best. This lab’s doors will always remain open for you.


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