X-ray crystallography is wonderful stuff – I think you’ll get chemists to generally agree on that. There’s no other technique that can provide such certainty about the structure of a compound – and for medicinal chemists, it has the invaluable ability to show you a snapshot of your drug candidate bound to its protein target. Of course, not all proteins can be crystallized, and not all of them can be crystallized with drug ligands in them. But an X-ray structure is usually considered the last word, when you can get one – and thanks to automation, computing power, and to brighter X-ray sources, we get more of them than ever.
But there are a surprising number of ways that X-ray data can mislead you. For an excellent treatment of these, complete with plenty of references to the recent literature, see an excellent paper coming out in Drug Discovery Today from researchers at Astra-Zeneca (Andy Davis and Stephen St.-Gallay) and Uppsala University (Gerard Kleywegt). These folks all know their computational and structural biology, and they’re willing to tell you how much they don’t know, either.
For starters, a small (but significant) number of protein structures derived from X-ray data are just plain wrong. Medicinal chemists should always look first at the resolution of an X-ray structure, since the tighter the data, the better the chance there is of things being as they seem. The authors make the important point that there’s some subjective judgment involved on the part of a crystallographer interpreting raw electron-density maps, and the poorer the resolution, the more judgment calls there are to be made:
Nevertheless, most chemists who undertake structure-based design treat a protein crystal structure reverently as if it was determined at very high resolution, regardless of the resolution at which the structure was actually determined (admittedly, crystallographers themselves are not immune to this practice either). Also, the fact that the crystallographer is bound to have made certain assumptions, to have had certain biases and perhaps even to have made mistakes is usually ignored. Assumptions, biases, ambiguities and mistakes may manifest themselves (even in high-resolution structures) at the level of individual atoms, of residues (e.g. sidechain conformations) and beyond.
Then there’s the problem of interpreting how your drug candidate interacts with the protein. The ability to get an X-ray structure doesn’t always correlate well with the binding potency of a given compound, so it’s not like you can necessarily count on a lot of clear signals about why the compound is binding. Hydrogen bonds may be perfectly obvious, or they can be rather hard to interpret. Binding through (or through displacement of) water molecules is extremely important, too, and that can be hard to get a handle on as well.
And not least, there’s the assumption that your structure is going to do you good once you’ve got it nailed down:
It is usually tacitly assumed that the conditions under which the complex was crystallised are relevant, that the observed protein conformation is relevant for interaction with the ligand (i.e. no flexibility in the active-site residues) and that the structure actually contributes insights that will lead to the design of better compounds. While these assumptions seem perfectly reasonable at first sight, they are not all necessarily true. . .
That’s a key point, because that’s the sort of error that can really lead you into trouble. After all, everything looks good, and you can start to think that you really understand the system, that is until none of your wonderful X-ray-based analogs work out they way you thought they would. The authors make the point that when your X-ray data and your structure-activity data seem to diverge, it’s often a sign that you don’t understand some key points about the thermodynamics of binding. (An X-ray is a static picture, and says nothing about what energetic tradeoffs were made along the way). Instead of an irritating disconnect or distraction, it should be looked at as a chance to find out what’s really going on. . .