It's been a while since I wrote about the neuraminidase inhibitors (Tamiflu and Relenza, oseltamavir and zanamivir). As we start to head into fall, though, I'm sure that avian flu will invade the headlines again, if nothing else (and I hope it's nothing else).
There's an interesting report in Nature (subscriber link) on how these drugs work. Bird flu is a Type A influenza, but there are two broad groups inside that class, which are defined by what variety of neuraminidase enzyme they express. (There are actually nine enzyme variants known, but four of them fall into one group and five into the other).
The drugs were developed against group-2 enzymes, but they're also effective against group-1 influenzas. Since the X-ray crystal structures showed the the drugs bound in the same way to all the group-2 neuraminidases, and since the active sites of all the subtypes across the two groups are extremely similar, no one ever thought that their binding modes would be different. Well, until last month, anyway, when the X-ray crystallographic data came in.
And what it showed was that the active sites of the group-1 enzymes, sequence homology be damned, have a much different structure than the group-2s. As it turns out, though, they can adopt a similar shape when an inhibitor binds to them, which is why the marketed inhibitors still work on them, but they're fundamentally quite different.
I can't resist the urge to use this example to illustrate some of the real problems in our current state of the art for computation and modeling. The differences between these two enzymes are due to their different amino acid residues far away from the active site, which makes modeling them much, much more difficult (and makes the error bars much, much wider when you do). That's why no one realized how far off the group-1 and group-2 neuraminidases were until the X-ray structure was available: modeling couldn't tell you. Any modeling efforts that tried would probably have decided, incorrectly, that the two groups were nearly identical. Why shouldn't they be?
But if we'd had that X-ray data from the start, modeling would very likely have told you, incorrectly, that there was little chance that either Relenza or Tamiflu would work on the group-1 enzyme variants. Why should they? The "induced fit" binding modes, where the enzyme changes shape significantly as the ligand binds, are understandably very difficult to model. There are just too many possibilities, too many of which are within each other's computational error bars.
Now, it's true that this latest work isn't based on molecular modeling at all. (You have to wonder how close these guys got, though). But plenty of projects that are using it are just as much in the dark as a neuraminidase team would have been, and they may not even realize it. Most molecular modelers are well aware of these limitations, but not all of them - or all of the managers over them - are willing to accept them. And when you get out to investors or the general public, it's all too easy for modelers or managers to act as if things are perfectly under control, when in reality they're lurching around in the dark. Like the rest of us. . .