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This article has been peer reviewed and is published in PLoS Pathogens 2009, 5(11): 1-11. The published version is available at DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1000674. © Public Library of Science


Both equilibrium and nonequilibrium factors influence the efficacy of pharmaceutical agents that target intermediate states of biochemical reactions. We explored the intermediate state inhibition of gp41, part of the HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein complex (Env) that promotes viral entry through membrane fusion. This process involves a series of gp41 conformational changes coordinated by Env interactions with cellular CD4 and a chemokine receptor. In a kinetic window between CD4 binding and membrane fusion, the N- and C-terminal regions of the gp41 ectodomain become transiently susceptible to inhibitors that disrupt Env structural transitions. In this study, we sought to identify kinetic parameters that influence the antiviral potency of two such gp41 inhibitors, C37 and 5-Helix. Employing a series of C37 and 5-Helix variants, we investigated the physical properties of gp41 inhibition, including the ability of inhibitor-bound gp41 to recover its fusion activity once inhibitor was removed from solution. Our results indicated that antiviral activity critically depended upon irreversible deactivation of inhibitor-bound gp41. For C37, which targets the N-terminal region of the gp41 ectodomain, deactivation was a slow process that depended on chemokine receptor binding to Env. For 5-Helix, which targets the C-terminal region of the gp41 ectodomain, deactivation occurred rapidly following inhibitor binding and was independent of chemokine receptor levels. Due to this kinetic disparity, C37 inhibition was largely reversible, while 5-Helix inhibition was functionally irreversible. The fundamental difference in deactivation mechanism points to an unappreciated asymmetry in gp41 following inhibitor binding and impacts the development of improved fusion inhibitors and HIV-1 vaccines. The results also demonstrate how the activities of intermediate state inhibitors critically depend upon the final disposition of inhibitor-bound states.

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