In this week’s journal club, we reviewed a paper by Lippow et al. in Nature Biotechnology, which features a computational pipeline that is capable of maturing antibodies (Abs) by up to 140-fold. The paper itself discusses 4 test case Abs (D44.1, cetuximab, 4-4-20, bevacizumab) and uses changes in electrostatic energy to identify favourable mutations. Up to the point when this paper was published back in 2007, computational antibody design was an (almost) unexplored field of research – except for a study by Clark et al. in 2006, no one else had done anything like the work presented in this paper.
Briefly speaking, the group generated a mutant Ab-antigen (Ag) complex using a series of algorithms (dead-end elimination and A*), which was then scored by the group’s energy function for identifying favourable mutations. Lippow et al. used the electrostatics term of their binding affinity prediction in order to estimate the effects of mutations on an Ab’s binding affinity. In other words, instead of examining their entire scoring function, which includes terms such as van der Waal’s energy, the group only used changes in the electrostatic energy term as an indicator for proposing mutations. Overall, in 2 of the 4 mentioned test cases (D44.1 & cetuximab), the proposed mutations were experimentally tested to confirm their computational design pipeline – a brief overview of these two case studies will be described.
In the case of the D44.1 anti-lysozyme Ab, the group proposed 9 single mutations by their electrostatics-based calculation method; 6/9 single mutants were confirmed to be beneficial (i.e., the mutant had an increased binding affinity). The beneficial single mutants were combined, ultimately leading to a quadruple mutant structure with a 100-fold improvement in affinity. The quadruple mutant was then subjected to a second round of computer-guided affinity maturation, leading to a new variant with six mutations (effectively a 140-fold improvement over the wild-type Ab). This case study was a solid testimony to the validity of their method; since anti-lysozyme Abs are often used as model systems, these results demonstrated that their design pipeline had taken, in principle, a suitable approach to maturing Abs in silico.
The second case study with cetuximab was arguably the more interesting result. Like the D44.1 case above, mutations were proposed to increase the Ab’s binding affinity on the basis of the changes in electrostatics. Although the newly-designed triple mutant only showed a 10-fold improvement over its wild-type counterpart, the group showed that their protocols can work for therapeutically-relevant Abs. The cetuximab example was a perfect complement to the previous case study — it demonstrated the practical implications of the method, and how this pipeline could potentially be used to mature existing Abs within the clinic today.
Effectively, the group suggested that mutations that either introduce hydrophobicity or a net charge at the binding interface tend to increase an Ab’s binding affinity. These conclusions shouldn’t come with huge surprise, but it was remarkable that the group had reached these conclusions with just one term from their energy function.
Effectively, the paper set off a whole new series of possibilities and helped us to widen our horizons. The paper was by no means perfect, especially with respect to predicting the precise binding affinities of mutants – much of this error could be bottled down to the modelling stage of their pipeline. However, the paper showed that computational affinity maturation is not just a dream – in fact, the paper showed that it’s perfectly doable, and immediately applicable. Interestingly, Lippow et al.’s manipulation of an Ab’s electrostatics seemed to be a valid approach, with recent publications on Ab maturation showing that introducing charged residues can enhance binding affinity (e.g. Kiyoshi et al., 2014).
More importantly, the paper was a beautiful showcase of how computational analyses could inform the decision making process in an in vitro framework, and I believe it exemplified how we should approach our problems in bioinformatics. We should not think of proteins as mere text files and numbers, but realise that they are living systems, and we’re not yet at a point where we fully understand how proteins behave. This shouldn’t discourage us from research; instead, it should give us the incentive to take things more slowly, and develop a method/product that could be used to solve greater, pragmatic problems.