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Expert Opin Drug Discov. 2011 Aug 1;6(8):771-782.

X-ray crystallography: Assessment and validation of protein-small molecule complexes for drug discovery.

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Department of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics, University of Virginia, 1340 Jefferson Park Avenue, Charlottesville, VA 22908, USA.



Crystallography is the key initial component for structure-based and fragment-based drug design and can often generate leads that can be developed into high potency drugs. Therefore, huge sums of money are committed based on the outcome of crystallography experiments and their interpretation.


This review discusses how to evaluate the correctness of an X-ray structure, focusing on the validation of small molecule-protein complexes. Various types of inaccuracies found within the PDB are identified and the ramifications of these errors are discussed. The reader will gain an understanding of the key parameters that need to be inspected before a structure can be used in drug discovery efforts, as well as an appreciation of the difficulties of correctly interpreting electron density for small molecules. The reader will also be introduced to methods for validating small molecules within the context of a macromolecular structure.


One of the reasons that ligand identification and positioning, within a macromolecular crystal structure, is so difficult is that the quality of small molecules widely varies in the PDB. For this reason, the PDB can not always be considered a reliable repository of structural information pertaining to small molecules, and this makes the derivation of general principles that govern small molecule-protein interactions more difficult.

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