Unlike the complex structure of fungi, protozoa, and helminths, viral structure is simple, consisting of nucleic acid, a protein coat, viral enzymes, and, sometimes, a lipid envelope. Furthermore, viruses are obligate intracellular pathogens that use the host’s cellular machinery to replicate. These characteristics make it difficult to develop drugs with selective toxicity against viruses.
Many antiviral drugs are nucleoside analogs and function by inhibiting nucleic acid biosynthesis. For example, acyclovir (marketed as Zovirax) is a synthetic analog of the nucleoside guanosine. It is activated by the herpes simplex viral enzyme thymidine kinase and, when added to a growing DNA strand during replication, causes chain termination. Its specificity for virus-infected cells comes from both the need for a viral enzyme to activate it and the increased affinity of the activated form for viral DNA polymerase compared to host cell DNA polymerase. Acyclovir and its derivatives are frequently used for the treatment of herpes virus infections, including genital herpes, chickenpox, shingles, Epstein-Barr virus infections, and cytomegalovirus infections. Acyclovir can be administered either topically or systemically, depending on the infection. One possible side effect of its use includes nephrotoxicity. The drug adenine-arabinoside, marketed as vidarabine, is a synthetic analog to deoxyadenosine that has a mechanism of action similar to that of acyclovir. It is also effective for the treatment of various human herpes viruses. However, because of possible side effects involving low white blood cell counts and neurotoxicity, treatment with acyclovir is now preferred.
Ribavirin, another synthetic guanosine analog, works by a mechanism of action that is not entirely clear. It appears to interfere with both DNA and RNA synthesis, perhaps by reducing intracellular pools of guanosine triphosphate (GTP). Ribavarin also appears to inhibit the RNA polymerase of hepatitis C virus. It is primarily used for the treatment of the RNA viruses like hepatitis C (in combination therapy with interferon) and respiratory syncytial virus. Possible side effects of ribavirin use include anemia and developmental effects on unborn children in pregnant patients. In recent years, another nucleotide analog, sofosbuvir (Solvaldi), has also been developed for the treatment of hepatitis C. Sofosbuvir is a uridine analog that interferes with viral polymerase activity. It is commonly coadministered with ribavirin, with and without interferon.
Inhibition of nucleic acid synthesis is not the only target of synthetic antivirals. Although the mode of action of amantadine and its relative rimantadine are not entirely clear, these drugs appear to bind to a transmembrane protein that is involved in the escape of the influenza virus from endosomes. Blocking escape of the virus also prevents viral RNA release into host cells and subsequent viral replication. Increasing resistance has limited the use of amantadine and rimantadine in the treatment of influenza A. Use of amantadine can result in neurological side effects, but the side effects of rimantadine seem less severe. Interestingly, because of their effects on brain chemicals such as dopamine and NMDA (N-methyl D-aspartate), amantadine and rimantadine are also used for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.
Neuraminidase inhibitors, including olsetamivir (Tamiflu), zanamivir (Relenza), and peramivir (Rapivab), specifically target influenza viruses by blocking the activity of influenza virus neuraminidase, preventing the release of the virus from infected cells. These three antivirals can decrease flu symptoms and shorten the duration of illness, but they differ in their modes of administration: olsetamivir is administered orally, zanamivir is inhaled, and peramivir is administered intravenously. Resistance to these neuraminidase inhibitors still seems to be minimal.
Pleconaril is a synthetic antiviral under development that showed promise for the treatment of picornaviruses. Use of pleconaril for the treatment of the common cold caused by rhinoviruses was not approved by the FDA in 2002 because of lack of proven effectiveness, lack of stability, and association with irregular menstruation. Its further development for this purpose was halted in 2007. However, pleconaril is still being investigated for use in the treatment of life-threatening complications of enteroviruses, such as meningitis and sepsis. It is also being investigated for use in the global eradication of a specific enterovirus, polio.17 Pleconaril seems to work by binding to the viral capsid and preventing the uncoating of viral particles inside host cells during viral infection.
Viruses with complex life cycles, such as HIV, can be more difficult to treat. First, HIV targets CD4-positive white blood cells, which are necessary for a normal immune response to infection. Second, HIV is a retrovirus, meaning that it converts its RNA genome into a DNA copy that integrates into the host cell’s genome, thus hiding within host cell DNA. Third, the HIV reverse transcriptase lacks proofreading activity and introduces mutations that allow for rapid development of antiviral drug resistance. To help prevent the emergence of resistance, a combination of specific synthetic antiviral drugs is typically used in ART for HIV.
The reverse transcriptase inhibitors block the early step of converting viral RNA genome into DNA, and can include competitive nucleoside analog inhibitors (e.g., azidothymidine/zidovudine, or AZT) and non-nucleoside noncompetitive inhibitors (e.g., etravirine) that bind reverse transcriptase and cause an inactivating conformational change. Drugs called protease inhibitors (e.g., ritonavir) block the processing of viral proteins and prevent viral maturation. Protease inhibitors are also being developed for the treatment of other viral types.18 For example, simeprevir (Olysio) has been approved for the treatment of hepatitis C and is administered with ribavirin and interferon in combination therapy. The integrase inhibitors (e.g., raltegravir), block the activity of the HIV integrase responsible for the recombination of a DNA copy of the viral genome into the host cell chromosome. Additional drug classes for HIV treatment include the CCR5 antagonists and the fusion inhibitors (e.g., enfuviritide), which prevent the binding of HIV to the host cell coreceptor (chemokine receptor type 5 [CCR5]) and the merging of the viral envelope with the host cell membrane, respectively.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology