A significant number of drug discovery efforts are based on natural products or high throughput screens from which compounds showing potential therapeutic effects are identified without knowledge of the target molecule or its 3D structure. In such cases computational ligand-based drug design (LBDD) can accelerate the drug discovery processes. LBDD is a general approach to elucidate the relationship of a compound's structure and physicochemical attributes to its biological activity. The resulting structure–activity relationship (SAR) may then act as the basis for the prediction of compounds with improved biological attributes. LBDD methods range from pharmacophore models identifying essential features of ligands responsible for their activity, quantitative structure–activity relationships (QSAR) yielding quantitative estimates of activities based on physiochemical properties, and to similarity searching, which explores compounds with similar properties as well as various combinations of the above. A number of recent LBDD approaches involve the use of multiple conformations of the ligands being studied. One of the basic components to generate multiple conformations in LBDD is molecular mechanics (MM), which apply an empirical energy function to relate conformation to energies and forces. The collection of conformations for ligands is then combined with functional data using methods ranging from regression analysis to neural networks, from which the SAR is determined. Accordingly, for effective application of LBDD for SAR determinations it is important that the compounds be accurately modelled such that the appropriate range of conformations accessible to the ligands is identified. Such accurate modelling is largely based on use of the appropriate empirical force field for the molecules being investigated and the approaches used to generate the conformations. The present chapter includes a brief overview of currently used SAR methods in LBDD followed by a more detailed presentation of issues and limitations associated with empirical energy functions and conformational sampling methods.
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