Small molecule receptor-binding is dominated by weak, non-covalent interactions such as van-der-Waals hydrogen bonding or electrostatics. Calculating these non-covalent ligand-receptor interactions is a challenge to computational means in terms of accuracy and efficacy since the ligand may bind in a number of thermally accessible conformations. The conformational rotamer ensemble sampling tool (CREST) uses an iterative scheme to efficiently sample the conformational space and calculates energies using the semi-empirical ‘Geometry, Frequency, Noncovalent, eXtended Tight Binding’ (GFN2-xTB) method. This combined approach is applied to blind predictions of the modes and free energies of binding for a set of 10 drug molecule ligands to the cucurbit[n]urils CB receptor from the recent ‘Statistical Assessment of the Modeling of Proteins and Ligands’ (SAMPL) challenge including morphine, hydromorphine, cocaine, fentanyl, and ketamine. For each system, the conformational space was sufficiently sampled for the free ligand and the ligand-receptor complexes using the quantum chemical Hamiltonian. A multitude of structures makes up the final conformer-rotamer ensemble, for which then free energies of binding are calculated. For those large and complex molecules, the results are in good agreement with experimental values with a mean error of 3 kcal/mol. The GFN2-xTB energies of binding are validated by advanced density functional theory calculations and found to be in good agreement. The efficacy of the automated QM sampling workflow allows the extension towards other complex molecular interaction scenarios.
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