An open-source drug discovery platform enables ultra-large virtual screens

Nature 2020, 580 (7805), 663-668

DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2117-z

Gorgulla C.; Boeszoermenyi A.; Wang Z.; Fischer P.; Coote P.; Padmanabha Das K.; Malets Y.; Radchenko D.; Moroz Y.; Scott D.; Fackeldey K.; Hoffmann M.; Iavniuk I.; Wagner G.; Arthanari H.

On average, an approved drug today costs $2-3 billion and takes over ten years to develop1. In part, this is due to expensive and time-consuming wet-lab experiments, poor initial hit compounds, and the high attrition rates in the (pre-)clinical phases. Structure-based virtual screening (SBVS) has the potential to mitigate these problems. With SBVS, the quality of the hits improves with the number of compounds screened. However, despite the fact that large compound databases exist, the ability to carry out large-scale SBVSs on computer clusters in an accessible, efficient, and flexible manner has remained elusive. Here we designed VirtualFlow, a highly automated and versatile open-source platform with perfect scaling behaviour that is able to prepare and efficiently screen ultra-large ligand libraries of compounds. VirtualFlow is able to use a variety of the most powerful docking programs. Using VirtualFlow, we have prepared the largest and freely available ready-to-dock ligand library available, with over 1.4 billion commercially available molecules. To demonstrate the power of VirtualFlow, we screened over 1 billion compounds and discovered a small molecule inhibitor (iKeap1) that engages KEAP1 with nanomolar affinity (Kd = 114 nM) and disrupts the interaction between KEAP1 and the transcription factor NRF2. We also identified a set of structurally diverse molecules that bind to KEAP1 with submicromolar affinity. This illustrates the potential of VirtualFlow to access vast regions of the chemical space and identify binders with high affinity for target proteins.