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Virology. 2003 Jun 5;310(2):333-42.

The effect of ribavirin and IMPDH inhibitors on hepatitis C virus subgenomic replicon RNA.

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Antiviral Therapy, Schering-Plough Research Institute, Kenilworth, NJ 07033, USA.


The recent development of in vitro hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA replication systems has provided useful tools for studying the intracellular anti-HCV activity of ribavirin. Ribavirin has been shown to: (1) induce "error catastrophe" in poliovirus, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 98, 6895-6900), (2) be a pseudo-substrate of the HCV RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp) in vitro, J. Biol. Chem. 276, 46094-46098), and (3) increase mutations in HCV RNA in the binary T7 polymerase/HCV cDNA replication system, J. Virol. 76, 8505-8517). These findings have led to the hypothesis that ribavirin may also induce error catastrophe in HCV. However, the functional relevance of ribavirin-induced HCV RNA mutagenesis is unclear. By use of a colony formation assay, in which RNA is isolated from the HCV subgenomic replicon system following treatment, the impact of ribavirin, inosine-5'-monophosphate dehydrogenase (IMPDH) inhibitors, and the combination was assessed. Ribavirin reduced HCV replicon colony-forming efficiency (CFE) in a dose-dependent fashion, suggesting that ribavirin may be misincorporated into replicon RNA and result in an anti-replicon effect analogous to error catastrophe. This effect was markedly suppressed by addition of exogenous guanosine. Combination treatment with ribavirin and mycophenolic acid (MPA) or VX-497, both potent, nonnucleoside IMPDH inhibitors, led to a greatly enhanced anti-replicon effect. This enhancement was reversed by inclusion of guanosine with the treatment. In contrast, MPA or VX-497 alone had only marginal effects on both the quantity and quality (CFE) of replicon RNA, suggesting that although IMPDH inhibition is an important contributing factor to the overall ribavirin anti-HCV replicon activity, IMPDH inhibition by itself is not sufficient to exert an anti-HCV effect. Sequencing data targeting the neo gene segment of the HCV replicon indicated that ribavirin together with MPA or VX-497 increased the replicon error rate by about two-fold. Taken together these results further suggest that lethal mutagenesis may be an effective anti-HCV strategy. The colony formation assay provides a useful tool for evaluating mutagenic nucleoside analogs for HCV therapy. Finally, the data from combination treatment indicate potential therapeutic value for an enhanced anti-HCV effect when using ribavirin in combination with IMPDH inhibition.

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