Understanding Cryptic Pocket Formation in Protein Targets by Enhanced Sampling Simulations

J Am Chem Soc. 2016 Nov 2;138(43):14257-14263. doi: 10.1021/jacs.6b05425. Epub 2016 Oct 20.


Cryptic pockets, that is, sites on protein targets that only become apparent when drugs bind, provide a promising alternative to classical binding sites for drug development. Here, we investigate the nature and dynamical properties of cryptic sites in four pharmacologically relevant targets, while comparing the efficacy of various simulation-based approaches in discovering them. We find that the studied cryptic sites do not correspond to local minima in the computed conformational free energy landscape of the unliganded proteins. They thus promptly close in all of the molecular dynamics simulations performed, irrespective of the force-field used. Temperature-based enhanced sampling approaches, such as Parallel Tempering, do not improve the situation, as the entropic term does not help in the opening of the sites. The use of fragment probes helps, as in long simulations occasionally it leads to the opening and binding to the cryptic sites. Our observed mechanism of cryptic site formation is suggestive of an interplay between two classical mechanisms: induced-fit and conformational selection. Employing this insight, we developed a novel Hamiltonian Replica Exchange-based method "SWISH" (Sampling Water Interfaces through Scaled Hamiltonians), which combined with probes resulted in a promising general approach for cryptic site discovery. We also addressed the issue of "false-positives" and propose a simple approach to distinguish them from druggable cryptic pockets. Our simulations, whose cumulative sampling time was more than 200 μs, help in clarifying the molecular mechanism of pocket formation, providing a solid basis for the choice of an efficient computational method.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Binding Sites
  • Ligands
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation*
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy
  • Protein Conformation
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Proteins / metabolism*


  • Ligands
  • Proteins