Even with the availability of vaccines, therapeutic options for COVID-19 still remain highly desirable, especially in hospitalized patients with moderate or severe disease. Soluble ACE2 (sACE2) is a promising therapeutic candidate that neutralizes SARS CoV-2 infection by acting as a decoy. Using computational mutagenesis, we designed a number of sACE2 derivatives carrying three to four mutations. The top-predicted sACE2 decoy based on the in silico mutagenesis scan was subjected to molecular dynamics and free-energy calculations for further validation. After illuminating the mechanism of increased binding for our designed sACE2 derivative, the design was verified experimentally by flow cytometry and BLI-binding experiments. The computationally designed sACE2 decoy (ACE2-FFWF) bound the receptor-binding domain of SARS-CoV-2 tightly with low nanomolar affinity and ninefold affinity enhancement over the wild type. Furthermore, cell surface expression was slightly greater than wild-type ACE2, suggesting that the design is well-folded and stable. Having an arsenal of high-affinity sACE2 derivatives will help to buffer against the emergence of SARS CoV-2 variants. Here, we show that computational methods have become sufficiently accurate for the design of therapeutics for current and future viral pandemics.
J Chem Inf Model, August 24, 2021 - https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jcim.1c00783