Adverse drug reactions have been linked with genetic polymorphisms in HLA genes in numerous different studies. HLA proteins have an essential role in the presentation of self and non-self peptides, as part of the adaptive immune response. Amongst the associated drugs-allele combinations, anti-HIV drug Abacavir has been shown to be associated with the HLA-B*57:01 allele, and anti-epilepsy drug Carbamazepine with B*15:02, in both cases likely following the altered peptide repertoire model of interaction. Under this model, the drug binds directly to the antigen presentation region, causing different self peptides to be presented, which trigger an unwanted immune response. There is growing interest in searching for evidence supporting this model for other ADRs using bioinformatics techniques. In this study, in silico docking was used to assess the utility and reliability of well-known docking programs when addressing these challenging HLA-drug situations. The overall aim was to address the uncertainty of docking programs giving different results by completing a detailed comparative study of docking software, grounded in the MHC-ligand experimental structural data – for Abacavir and to a lesser extent Carbamazepine - in order to assess their performance. Four docking programs: SwissDock, ROSIE, AutoDock Vina and AutoDockFR, were used to investigate if each software could accurately dock the Abacavir back into the crystal structure for the protein arising from the known risk allele, and if they were able to distinguish between the HLA-associated and non-HLA-associated (control) alleles. The impact of using homology models on the docking performance and how using different parameters, such as including receptor flexibility, affected the docking performance were also investigated to simulate the approach where a crystal structure for a given HLA allele may be unavailable. The programs that were best able to predict the binding position of Abacavir were then used to recreate the docking seen for Carbamazepine with B*15:02 and controls alleles.
It was found that the programs investigated were sometimes able to correctly predict the binding mode of Abacavir with B*57:01 but not always. Each of the software packages that were assessed could predict the binding of Abacavir and Carbamazepine within the correct sub-pocket and, with the exception of ROSIE, was able to correctly distinguish between risk and control alleles. We found that docking to homology models could produce poorer quality predictions, especially when sequence differences impact the architecture of predicted binding pockets. Caution must therefore be used as inaccurate structures may lead to erroneous docking predictions. Incorporating receptor flexibility was found to negatively affect the docking performance for the examples investigated. Taken together, our findings help characterise the potential but also the limitations of computational prediction of drug-HLA interactions. These docking techniques should therefore always be used with care and alongside other methods of investigation, in order to be able to draw strong conclusions from the given results.