Objectives: Infection with yellow fever virus (YFV), the prototypic mosquito-borne flavivirus, causes severe febrile disease with haemorrhage, multi-organ failure and a high mortality. Moreover, in recent years the Flavivirus genus has gained further attention due to re-emergence and increasing incidence of West Nile, dengue and Japanese encephalitis viruses. Potent and safe antivirals are urgently needed.
Methods: Starting from the crystal structure of the NS3 helicase from Kunjin virus (an Australian variant of West Nile virus), we identified a novel, unexploited protein site that might be involved in the helicase catalytic cycle and could thus in principle be targeted for enzyme inhibition. In silico docking of a library of small molecules allowed us to identify a few selected compounds with high predicted affinity for the new site. Their activity against helicases from several flaviviruses was confirmed in in vitro helicase/enzymatic assays. The effect on the in vitro replication of flaviviruses was then evaluated.
Results: Ivermectin, a broadly used anti-helminthic drug, proved to be a highly potent inhibitor of YFV replication (EC₅₀ values in the sub-nanomolar range). Moreover, ivermectin inhibited, although less efficiently, the replication of several other flaviviruses, i.e. dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis and tick-borne encephalitis viruses. Ivermectin exerts its effect at a timepoint that coincides with the onset of intracellular viral RNA synthesis, as expected for a molecule that specifically targets the viral helicase.
Conclusions: The well-tolerated drug ivermectin may hold great potential for treatment of YFV infections. Furthermore, structure-based optimization may result in analogues exerting potent activity against flaviviruses other than YFV.