The search for successful therapies of infections with the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is ongoing. We tested inhibition of host cell nucleotide synthesis as a promising strategy to decrease the replication of SARS-CoV-2-RNA, thus diminishing the formation of virus progeny. Methotrexate (MTX) is an established drug for cancer therapy and to induce immunosuppression. The drug inhibits dihydrofolate reductase and other enzymes required for the synthesis of nucleotides. Strikingly, the replication of SARS-CoV-2 was inhibited by MTX in therapeutic concentrations around 1 µM, leading to more than 1000-fold reductions in virus progeny in Vero C1008 (Vero E6) and ~100-fold reductions in Calu-3 cells. Virus replication was more sensitive to equivalent concentrations of MTX than of the established antiviral agent remdesivir. MTX strongly diminished the synthesis of viral structural proteins and the amount of released virus RNA. Virus replication and protein synthesis were rescued by folinic acid (leucovorin) and also by inosine, indicating that purine depletion is the principal mechanism that allows MTX to reduce virus RNA synthesis. The combination of MTX with remdesivir led to synergistic impairment of virus replication, even at 100 nM MTX. The use of MTX in treating SARS-CoV-2 infections still awaits further evaluation regarding toxicity and efficacy in infected organisms, rather than cultured cells. Within the frame of these caveats, however, our results raise the perspective of a two-fold benefit from repurposing MTX for treating COVID-19. Firstly, its previously known ability to reduce aberrant inflammatory responses might dampen respiratory distress. In addition, its direct antiviral activity described here would limit the dissemination of the virus.
Keywords: COVID-19; Coronavirus; Dihydrofolate reductase; Folic acid; Folinic acid; Inosine; Leucovorin; Methotrexate; Nucleocapsid; Purine synthesis; RNA replication; Remdesivir; SARS-CoV-2; Spike.
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