Drug-Membrane Interactions: Effects of Virus-Specific RNA-Dependent RNA Polymerase Inhibitors Remdesivir and Favipiravir on the Structure of Lipid Bilayers

Biochemistry. 2022 Jun 22. doi: 10.1021/acs.biochem.2c00042. Online ahead of print.


The two RNA-dependent RNA polymerase inhibitors remdesivir and favipiravir were originally developed and approved as broad-spectrum antiviral drugs for the treatment of harmful viral infections such as Ebola and influenza. With the outbreak of the global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the two drugs were repurposed for the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Clinical studies suggested that the efficacy of the drugs is enhanced in the case of an early or even prophylactic application. Because the contact between drug molecules and the plasma membrane is essential for a successful permeation process of the substances and therefore for their intracellular efficiency, drug-induced effects on the membrane structure are likely and have already been shown for other substances. We investigated the impact of remdesivir and favipiravir on lipid bilayers in model and cell membranes via several biophysical approaches. The measurements revealed that the embedding of remdesivir molecules in the lipid bilayer results in a disturbance of the membrane structure of the tested phospholipid vesicles. Nevertheless, in a cell-based assay, the presence of remdesivir induced only weak hemolysis of the treated erythrocytes. In contrast, no experimental indication for an effect on the structure and integrity of the membrane was detected in the case of favipiravir. Regarding potential prophylactic or accompanying use of the drugs in the therapy of COVID-19, the physiologically relevant impacts associated with the drug-induced structural modifications of the membrane might be important to understand side effects and/or low effectivities.