Computational studies of anaplastic lymphoma kinase mutations reveal common mechanisms of oncogenic activation

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Mar 9;118(10):e2019132118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2019132118.


Kinases play important roles in diverse cellular processes, including signaling, differentiation, proliferation, and metabolism. They are frequently mutated in cancer and are the targets of a large number of specific inhibitors. Surveys of cancer genome atlases reveal that kinase domains, which consist of 300 amino acids, can harbor numerous (150 to 200) single-point mutations across different patients in the same disease. This preponderance of mutations-some activating, some silent-in a known target protein make clinical decisions for enrolling patients in drug trials challenging since the relevance of the target and its drug sensitivity often depend on the mutational status in a given patient. We show through computational studies using molecular dynamics (MD) as well as enhanced sampling simulations that the experimentally determined activation status of a mutated kinase can be predicted effectively by identifying a hydrogen bonding fingerprint in the activation loop and the αC-helix regions, despite the fact that mutations in cancer patients occur throughout the kinase domain. In our study, we find that the predictive power of MD is superior to a purely data-driven machine learning model involving biochemical features that we implemented, even though MD utilized far fewer features (in fact, just one) in an unsupervised setting. Moreover, the MD results provide key insights into convergent mechanisms of activation, primarily involving differential stabilization of a hydrogen bond network that engages residues of the activation loop and αC-helix in the active-like conformation (in >70% of the mutations studied, regardless of the location of the mutation).

Keywords: driver mutations; focus formation assay; kinase activation; machine learning; molecular dynamics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase / chemistry*
  • Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase / deficiency
  • Enzyme Activation / genetics
  • Humans
  • Machine Learning*
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation*
  • Mutation*
  • Protein Conformation, alpha-Helical


  • ALK protein, human
  • Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase