HIV drug discovered to be effective against Zika virus

Nov. 6, 2019

A research team at Temple’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine has discovered that a drug used to treat HIV is effective in suppressing Zika virus, suggesting potential global implications for treating mosquito-borne viral diseases.

In a new study published in the journal Molecular Therapy, the research team – led by Laura H. Carnell Professor and Department of Neuroscience Chair Kamel Khalili, director of the Center for Neurovirology and the Comprehensive NeuroAIDS Center at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine – describes a study that demonstrated in cell and animal models that the drug, rilpivirine, stops Zika virus by targeting enzymes that both Zika and HIV depend on for replication.

The enzymes also occur in other flaviviruses – enveloped RNA viruses often transmitted by mosquitoes – including dengue, West Nile and yellow fever. 

“HIV and Zika virus are distinct types of RNA viruses,” Khalili explained. “By discovering that rilpivirine blocks Zika virus replication by binding to an RNA polymerase enzyme common to a family of RNA viruses, we've opened the way to potentially being able to treat multiple RNA virus infections using the same strategy.”

Previously endemic to regions of Africa and Asia, Zika virus is now present throughout the Americas, and has attracted growing concern in recent years due to its global spread and damaging effects on the brain and nervous system. Zika virus infection is known to cause Guillain-Barré syndrome, which culminates in muscle paralysis, and microcephaly, or underdevelopment of the head, in infants born to mothers infected with the virus.

Rilpivirine is one of several non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor (NNRTI) drugs that have been developed to treat HIV. This research breakthrough and other tests showing that other NNRTIs are effective in Zika-infected cells have significant implications for their use in treating other flavivirus infections. The researchers plan to soon step up their studies to develop ways to improve the effectiveness of these drugs in blocking viral infections.  

“We have a starting point from which we can find ways to make these drugs even more potent and more effective against flaviviruses,” Khalili said.

A team from across the university, including College of Science and Technology Dean and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Science Michael L. Klein and Associate Professors of Neuroscience Ilker K. Sariyer and Jennifer Gordon of Temple’s Center for Neuroviology, came together to carry out the research. 

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