Multi-ligand molecular docking, simulation, free energy calculations and wavelet analysis of the synergistic effects between natural compounds baicalein and cubebin for the inhibition of the main protease of SARS-CoV-2

J Mol Liq. 2023 Mar 15:374:121253. doi: 10.1016/j.molliq.2023.121253. Epub 2023 Jan 16.


Combination drugs have been used for several diseases for many years since they produce better therapeutic effects. However, it is still a challenge to discover candidates to form a combination drug. This study aimed to investigate whether using a comprehensive in silico approach to identify novel combination drugs from a Chinese herbal formula is an appropriate and creative strategy. We, therefore, used Toujie Quwen Granules for the main protease (Mpro) of SARS-CoV-2 as an example. We first used molecular docking to identify molecular components of the formula which may inhibit Mpro. Baicalein (HQA004) is the most favorable inhibitory ligand. We also identified a ligand from the other component, cubebin (CHA008), which may act to support the proposed HQA004 inhibitor. Molecular dynamics simulations were then performed to further elucidate the possible mechanism of inhibition by HQA004 and synergistic bioactivity conferred by CHA008. HQA004 bound strongly at the active site and that CHA008 enhanced the contacts between HQA004 and Mpro. However, CHA008 also dynamically interacted at multiple sites, and continued to enhance the stability of HQA004 despite diffusion to a distant site. We proposed that HQA004 acted as a possible inhibitor, and CHA008 served to enhance its effects via allosteric effects at two sites. Additionally, our novel wavelet analysis showed that as a result of CHA008 binding, the dynamics and structure of Mpro were observed to have more subtle changes, demonstrating that the inter-residue contacts within Mpro were disrupted by the synergistic ligand. This work highlighted the molecular mechanism of synergistic effects between different herbs as a result of allosteric crosstalk between two ligands at a protein target, as well as revealed that using the multi-ligand molecular docking, simulation, free energy calculations and wavelet analysis to discover novel combination drugs from a Chinese herbal remedy is an innovative pathway.

Keywords: ADME/T, absorption, distribution, metabolism, excretion and toxicity; COVID-19; COVID-19, Coronavirus disease 2019; Combination drug therapy; Computer simulation; Computers molecular; H-bonds, hydrogen bonds; LD50, median lethal dose; MD, molecular dynamics; MM-PBSA, molecular mechanics Poisson Boltzmann surface area; Mpro, main protease; Natural products; PAINS, Pan-assay interference compounds; RCO, inter-residue contact order; RMSF, root-mean-square-fluctuation; SARS-CoV-2, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2; SMILES, Simplified Molecular-input Line-entry System; TCMSP, traditional Chinese medicine systems pharmacology database and analysis platform; TQG, Toujie Quwen Granule; Virus diseases.