The hemoglobin degradation process in Plasmodium
parasites is vital for nutrient acquisition required for their growth and proliferation. In P. falciparum
, falcipains (FP-2 and FP-3) are the major hemoglobinases, and remain attractive antimalarial drug targets. Other Plasmodium
species also possess highly homologous proteins to FP-2 and FP-3. Although several inhibitors have been designed against these proteins, none has been commercialized due to associated toxicity on human cathepsins (Cat-K, Cat-L and Cat-S). Despite the two enzyme groups sharing a common structural fold and catalytic mechanism, distinct active site variations have been identified, and can be exploited for drug development. Here, we utilize in silico approaches to screen 628 compounds from the South African natural sources to identify potential hits that can selectively inhibit the plasmodial proteases. Using docking studies, seven abietane diterpenoids, binding strongly to the plasmodial proteases, and three additional analogs from PubChem were identified. Important residues involved in ligand stabilization were identified for all potential hits through binding pose analysis and their energetic contribution determined by binding free energy calculations. The identified compounds present important scaffolds that could be further developed as plasmodial protease inhibitors. Previous laboratory assays showed the effect of the seven diterpenoids as antimalarials. Here, for the first time, we demonstrate that their possible mechanism of action could be by interacting with falcipains and their plasmodial homologs. Dynamic residue network (DRN) analysis on the plasmodial proteases identified functionally important residues, including a region with high betweenness centrality
, which had previously been proposed as a potential allosteric site in FP-2.
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