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Novel multi-objective affinity approach allows to identify pH-specific μ-opioid receptor agonists

  • Opioids are essential pharmaceuticals due to their analgesic properties, however, lethal side effects, addiction, and opioid tolerance are extremely challenging. The development of novel molecules targeting the μ-opioid receptor (MOR) in inflamed, but not in healthy tissue, could significantly reduce these unwanted effects. Finding such novel molecules can be achieved by maximizing the binding affinity to the MOR at acidic pH while minimizing it at neutral pH, thus combining two conflicting objectives. Here, this multi-objective optimal affinity approach is presented, together with a virtual drug discovery pipeline for its practical implementation. When applied to finding pH-specific drug candidates, it combines protonation state-dependent structure and ligand preparation with high-throughput virtual screening. We employ this pipeline to characterize a set of MOR agonists identifying a morphine-like opioid derivative with higher predicted binding affinities to the MOR at low pH compared to neutral pH. Our results also confirm existing experimental evidence that NFEPP, a previously described fentanyl derivative with reduced side effects, and recently reported β-fluorofentanyls and -morphines show an increased specificity for the MOR at acidic pH when compared to fentanyl and morphine. We further applied our approach to screen a >50K ligand library identifying novel molecules with pH-specific predicted binding affinities to the MOR. The presented differential docking pipeline can be applied to perform multi-objective affinity optimization to identify safer and more specific drug candidates at large scale.

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Author:Christopher Secker, Konstantin FackeldeyORCiD, Marcus Weber, Sourav Ray, Christoph Gorgulla, Christof Schütte
Document Type:Article
Parent Title (English):Journal of Cheminformatics
Year of first publication:2023
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