When designing an antibody for therapeutic use, knowledge of the structure (in particular the binding site) is a huge advantage. Unfortunately, obtaining even one of these structures experimentally, for example by x-ray crystallisation, is very difficult and time-consuming – researchers have therefore been turning to models.
The ‘framework’ regions of antibodies are well conserved between structures, and therefore homology modelling can be used successfully. However, problems arise when modelling the six loops that make up the antigen binding site – called the complementarity determining regions, or CDRs. For five of these loops, only a small number of conformations have actually been observed, forming a set of structural classes – these are known as canonical structures. The class that a CDR loop belongs to can be predicted from its structure, making the prediction of their structures quite accurate. However, this is not the case for the H3 loop (the third CDR of the heavy chain) – there is a much larger structural diversity, making H3 structure prediction a challenging problem.
H3 structure modelling can be considered as a specific case of general protein loop modelling. Starting with the sequence of the loop, and the structure of the remaining parts of the protein, there are three stages in a loop modelling algorithm: conformational sampling, the filtering out of physically unlikely structures, and ranking. There are two types of loop modelling algorithm, which differ in the way they perform the conformational sampling step: knowledge-based methods, and ab initio methods. Knowledge-based methods use databases of known structures to produce loop conformations, while ab initio methods do this computationally, without knowledge of existing structures. My research involves the testing and development of these loop modelling algorithms, with the aim of improving the standard of H3 structure prediction.
A knowledge-based method that I have tested is FREAD. FREAD uses a database of protein fragments that could possibly be used as loop structures. This database is searched, and possible structures are returned depending on the similarity of their sequence to the target sequence, and the similarity of the anchor structures (the two residues on either side of the loop). On a set of 55 unbound H3 loop targets, ranging between 8 and 18 residues long, FREAD (using a database of known H3 structures) produced an average best prediction RMSD of 2.7 Å (the ‘best’ prediction is the loop structure closest to the native of all those returned by FREAD). FREAD is obviously very sensitive to the availability of H3 structures: if no similar structure has been observed before, FREAD will either return a poor answer or fail to find any suitable fragments at all. For this reason there is huge variation in the FREAD results – for example, the best prediction for one target had an RMSD of 0.18 Å, while for another, the best RMSD was 10.69 Å. Fourteen of the targets were predicted with an RMSD of below 1 Å. The coverage for this particular set of targets was 80%, which means that FREAD failed to find an answer for one in five targets.
MECHANO is an ab initio algorithm that we have developed specifically for H3 loop prediction. Loops are built computationally, by adding residues sequentially onto one of the anchors. For each residue, φ/ψ dihedral angles are chosen from a distribution at random – the distributions used by MECHANO are residue-specific, and are a combination of general loop data and H3 loop data. Loops conformations are closed using a modified cyclic coordinate descent algorithm (CCD), where the dihedrals of each residue are changed, one at a time, to minimise the distance between the free end of the loop and its anchor point, whilst keeping the dihedral angles in the allowed regions of the Ramachandran plot. I have tested MECHANO on the same set of targets as FREAD, generating 5000 loop conformations per target: the average best prediction RMSD was 2.1 Å, and the results showed a clear length dependence – this is expected, since the conformational space to explore becomes larger as the number of residues increases. Even though the average best prediction RMSD is better than that of FREAD, only one of the best RMSDs produced by MECHANO was sub-angstrom, compared to 14 for FREAD. Since the MECHANO algorithm does not depend on previously observed structures, predictions were made for all targets (i.e. coverage = 100%).
My current work is focused upon developing a ‘hybrid’ method, which combines elements of the FREAD and MECHANO algorithms. In this way, we hope to make predictions with the accuracy that can be achieved by FREAD, whilst maintaining 100% coverage. In its current form, the hybrid method, when tested on the 55-loop dataset from before, produces an average best prediction RMSD of 1.68 Å, with 16 targets having a best RMSD of below 1 Å – a very promising result! However, possibly the most difficult part of loop prediction is the ranking of the generated loop structures; i.e. choosing the conformation that is closest to the native. This is therefore my next challenge!