Assessment of Covalently Binding Warhead Compounds in the Validation of the Cytomegalovirus Nuclear Egress Complex as an Antiviral Target

Cells. 2023 Apr 14;12(8):1162. doi: 10.3390/cells12081162.


Herpesviral nuclear egress is a regulated process of viral capsid nucleocytoplasmic release. Due to the large capsid size, a regular transport via the nuclear pores is unfeasible, so that a multistage-regulated export pathway through the nuclear lamina and both leaflets of the nuclear membrane has evolved. This process involves regulatory proteins, which support the local distortion of the nuclear envelope. For human cytomegalovirus (HCMV), the nuclear egress complex (NEC) is determined by the pUL50-pUL53 core that initiates multicomponent assembly with NEC-associated proteins and capsids. The transmembrane NEC protein pUL50 serves as a multi-interacting determinant that recruits regulatory proteins by direct and indirect contacts. The nucleoplasmic core NEC component pUL53 is strictly associated with pUL50 in a structurally defined hook-into-groove complex and is considered as the potential capsid-binding factor. Recently, we validated the concept of blocking the pUL50-pUL53 interaction by small molecules as well as cell-penetrating peptides or an overexpression of hook-like constructs, which can lead to a pronounced degree of antiviral activity. In this study, we extended this strategy by utilizing covalently binding warhead compounds, originally designed as binders of distinct cysteine residues in target proteins, such as regulatory kinases. Here, we addressed the possibility that warheads may likewise target viral NEC proteins, building on our previous crystallization-based structural analyses that revealed distinct cysteine residues in positions exposed from the hook-into-groove binding surface. To this end, the antiviral and NEC-binding properties of a selection of 21 warhead compounds were investigated. The combined findings are as follows: (i) warhead compounds exhibited a pronounced anti-HCMV potential in cell-culture-based infection models; (ii) computational analysis of NEC primary sequences and 3D structures revealed cysteine residues exposed to the hook-into-groove interaction surface; (iii) several of the active hit compounds exhibited NEC-blocking activity, as shown at the single-cell level by confocal imaging; (iv) the clinically approved warhead drug ibrutinib exerted a strong inhibitory impact on the pUL50-pUL53 core NEC interaction, as demonstrated by the NanoBiT assay system; and (v) the generation of recombinant HCMV ∆UL50-ΣUL53, allowing the assessment of viral replication under conditional expression of the viral core NEC proteins, was used for characterizing viral replication and a mechanistic evaluation of ibrutinib antiviral efficacy. Combined, the results point to a rate-limiting importance of the HCMV core NEC for viral replication and to the option of exploiting this determinant by the targeting of covalently NEC-binding warhead compounds.

Keywords: antiviral targeting based on NEC 3D structures; conditional expression of viral core NEC proteins; covalently binding warhead compounds; human cytomegalovirus; nuclear egress complex (NEC); pronounced NEC-directed antiviral activity; regulation of viral replication.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antiviral Agents* / metabolism
  • Antiviral Agents* / pharmacology
  • Cell Nucleus / metabolism
  • Cysteine / metabolism
  • Cytomegalovirus*
  • Humans
  • Nuclear Envelope / metabolism
  • Viral Proteins / metabolism


  • Antiviral Agents
  • Cysteine
  • Viral Proteins

Grants and funding

This research on herpesviral nuclear egress and the development of antiviral small molecules was funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft/DFG (German Research Foundation–401821119, Research Training Group GRK2504 for M.M. and J.T.), DFG (grant MA1289/11-1/11-3), Bayerische Forschungsstiftung (grant DeeP-CMV/AP-5/M.M.) and Volkswagenstiftung (grant Az9B783).