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Initial Stages of Spontaneous Binding of Folate-Based Vectors to Folate Receptor‑α Observed by Unbiased Molecular Dynamics

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journal contribution
posted on 12.07.2021, 09:03 by Ethan N. Schaber, Nikoleta Ivanova, Stoyan Iliev, Jasmina Petrova, Gergana Gocheva, Galia Madjarova, Anela Ivanova
Active targeting is a prospective strategy for controlled drug delivery to malignant tumor tissues. One of the approaches relies on recognition of a bioactive ligand by a receptor expressed abundantly on the surface of cancer cell membranes. A promising ligand–receptor pair is folic acid (or its dianionic form, folate) combined with the folate receptor-α (FRα). A number of targeting drug delivery systems based on folate have been suggested, but the mechanism of binding of the ligand or its derivatives to the receptor is not fully known at the molecular level. The current study summarizes the results from unbiased all-atom molecular dynamics simulations at physiological conditions describing the binding of two forms of folate and four of its synthetically available derivatives to FRα. The models (ca. 185,000 atoms) contain one receptor molecule, embedded in the outer leaflet of a lipid bilayer, and one ligand, all immersed in saline. The bilayer represents a human cancer cell membrane and consists of 370 asymmetrically distributed lipid molecules from 35 types. The ability of the vector molecules to bind to the receptor, the position of binding, and the interactions between them are analyzed. Spontaneous binding on the nanosecond scale is observed for all molecules, but its time, position, and persistence depend strongly on the ligand. Only folate, 5-methyltetrahydrofolate, and raltitrexed bind selectively at the active site of the receptor. Two binding poses are observed, one of them (realized by raltitrexed) corresponding qualitatively to that reported for the crystallographic structure of the complex folate-FRα. Pemetrexed adsorbs nonspecifically on the protein surface, while methotrexate and pteroyl ornithine couple much less to the receptor. The molecular simulations reproduce qualitatively correctly the relative binding affinity measured experimentally for five of the ligands. Analysis of the interactions between the ligands and FRα shows that in order to accomplish specific binding to the active site, a combination of hydrogen bonding, π-stacking, and van der Waals and Coulomb attraction should be feasible simultaneously for the vector molecule. The reported results demonstrate that it is possible to observe receptor–ligand binding without applying bias by representing the local environment as close as possible and contain important molecular-level guidelines for the design of folate-based systems for targeted delivery of anticancer drugs.