The recent success of the fusion inhibitor T-20 (enfuvirtide) in clinical studies has ushered in a new chapter in the development of anti-HIV-1 therapeutics. T-20 is the first FDA-approved drug that targets the viral transmembrane protein gp41. This protein, along with gp120, promotes viral entry through a coordinated cascade of conformational transitions that lead to the fusion of the HIV-1 and target cell membranes. The interaction of gp120 with CD4 and a chemokine receptor stimulates gp41 to extend and bridge the space between the virus and cell. Subsequently, gp41 collapses into a trimer-of-hairpins structure that brings the viral and cellular membranes into close proximity necessary for fusion. Enfuvirtide targets the gp41 amino-terminal region exposed in the transient extended state, blocking the ultimate collapse into the trimer-of hairpins and inhibiting membrane fusion. The vulnerability of this transient extended state has stimulated the development of new agents, ranging from small molecules to large proteins, that bind to gp41 and inhibit its structural transformations. The discovery and characterization of these inhibitors have not only led to new antiviral strategies, but have also shed light on the accessibility of gp41 epitopes that might play a role in HIV-1 vaccine development.
Keywords: membrane fusion, gp41, trimer-of-hairpins, c-peptides, n-peptides, t-20, hr1 pocket, n-coiled coil inhibitors, 2f5
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