Background: HCV infections are a serious threat to public health. An important drug target is the NS3 protease, for which several inhibitors are in clinical trials. Because of the high mutation rate of the virus, resistance against any HCV-specific drug is likely to become a substantial problem. Structure-activity data for the major resistant variants are therefore needed to guide future designs of protease inhibitors.
Methods: The inhibitory potency of tripeptide NS3 protease inhibitors, with either a P2 proline or phenylglycine, in combination with different P3 and P1-P1' groups, was assessed in enzyme activity assays using the full-length NS3 protein with known resistance-conferring substitutions A156T or D168V. The results obtained from these variants were compared with the inhibition of the wild-type enzyme. Molecular modelling was used to rationalize the biochemical results.
Results: Inhibitors combining the P2 proline and P1 (1R,2S)-1-amino-2-vinylcyclopropyl-carboxylic acid (vinylACCA) lost much of their potency on the resistant variants. Exchange of the P2 proline for phenylglycine yielded inhibitors that were equipotent on the wild-type and on the A156T and D168V variants. The same result was obtained from the combination of either the P2 residue with a norvaline or an aromatic scaffold in the P1 position.
Conclusions: The combination of a substituted P2 proline and P1 vinylACCA appears to be the main problem behind the observed resistance. Molecular modelling suggests an enforced change in binding conformation for the P2 proline-based inhibitors, whereas the phenylglycine-based inhibitors retained their wild-type binding conformation in the substituted forms of the enzyme.