Mathematical modeling of plus-strand RNA virus replication to identify broad-spectrum antiviral treatment strategies

bioRxiv. 2022 Jul 25;2022.07.25.501353. doi: 10.1101/2022.07.25.501353. Preprint


Plus-strand RNA viruses are the largest group of viruses. Many are human pathogens that inflict a socio-economic burden. Interestingly, plus-strand RNA viruses share remarkable similarities in their replication. A hallmark of plus-strand RNA viruses is the remodeling of intracellular membranes to establish replication organelles (so-called "replication factories"), which provide a protected environment for the replicase complex, consisting of the viral genome and proteins necessary for viral RNA synthesis. In the current study, we investigate pan-viral similarities and virus-specific differences in the life cycle of this highly relevant group of viruses. We first measured the kinetics of viral RNA, viral protein, and infectious virus particle production of hepatitis C virus (HCV), dengue virus (DENV), and coxsackievirus B3 (CVB3) in the immuno-compromised Huh7 cell line and thus without perturbations by an intrinsic immune response. Based on these measurements, we developed a detailed mathematical model of the replication of HCV, DENV, and CVB3 and show that only small virus-specific changes in the model were necessary to describe the in vitro dynamics of the different viruses. Our model correctly predicted virus-specific mechanisms such as host cell translation shut off and different kinetics of replication organelles. Further, our model suggests that the ability to suppress or shut down host cell mRNA translation may be a key factor for in vitro replication efficiency which may determine acute self-limited or chronic infection. We further analyzed potential broad-spectrum antiviral treatment options in silico and found that targeting viral RNA translation, especially polyprotein cleavage, and viral RNA synthesis may be the most promising drug targets for all plus-strand RNA viruses. Moreover, we found that targeting only the formation of replicase complexes did not stop the viral replication in vitro early in infection, while inhibiting intracellular trafficking processes may even lead to amplified viral growth.

Author summary: Plus-strand RNA viruses comprise a large group of related and medically relevant viruses. The current global pandemic of COVID-19 caused by the SARS-coronavirus-2 as well as the constant spread of diseases such as dengue and chikungunya fever show the necessity of a comprehensive and precise analysis of plus-strand RNA virus infections. Plus-strand RNA viruses share similarities in their life cycle. To understand their within-host replication strategies, we developed a mathematical model that studies pan-viral similarities and virus-specific differences of three plus-strand RNA viruses, namely hepatitis C, dengue, and coxsackievirus. By fitting our model to in vitro data, we found that only small virus-specific variations in the model were required to describe the dynamics of all three viruses. Furthermore, our model predicted that ribosomes involved in viral RNA translation seem to be a key player in plus-strand RNA replication efficiency, which may determine acute or chronic infection outcome. Furthermore, our in-silico drug treatment analysis suggests that targeting viral proteases involved in polyprotein cleavage, in combination with viral RNA replication, may represent promising drug targets with broad-spectrum antiviral activity.

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