Rigorous Free Energy Simulations in Virtual Screening

Virtual high throughput screening (vHTS) in drug discovery is a powerful approach to identify hits: when applied successfully, it can be much faster and cheaper than experimental high-throughput screening approaches. However, mainstream vHTS tools have significant limitations: ligand-based methods depend on knowledge of existing chemical matter, while structure-based tools such as docking involve significant approximations that limit their accuracy. Recent advances in scientific methods coupled with dramatic speedups in computational processing with GPUs make this an opportune time to consider the role of more rigorous methods that could improve the predictive power of vHTS workflows. In this Perspective, we assert that alchemical binding free energy methods using all-atom molecular dynamics simulations have matured to the point where they can be applied in virtual screening campaigns as a final scoring stage to prioritize the top molecules for experimental testing. Specifically, we propose that alchemical absolute binding free energy (ABFE) calculations offer the most direct and computationally efficient approach within a rigorous statistical thermodynamic framework for computing binding energies of diverse molecules, as is required for virtual screening. ABFE calculations are particularly attractive for drug discovery at this point in time, where the confluence of large-scale genomics data and insights from chemical biology have unveiled a large number of promising disease targets for which no small molecule binders are known, precluding ligand-based approaches, and where traditional docking approaches have foundered to find progressible chemical matter.