Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), the pathogen of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), causes ∼2 millions death every year and still defies an effective vaccine. HIV-1 infects host cells through envelope protein - mediated virus-cell fusion. The transmembrane subunit of envelope protein, gp41, is the molecular machinery which facilitates fusion. Its ectodomain contains several distinguishing functional domains, fusion peptide (FP), Nterminal heptad repeat (NHR), C-terminal heptad repeat (CHR) and membrane proximal extracellular region (MPER). During the fusion process, FP inserts into the host cell membrane, and an extended gp41 prehairpin conformation bridges the viral and cell membranes through MPER and FP respectively. Subsequent conformational change of the unstable prehairpin results in a coiled-coil 6-helix bundle (6HB) structure formed between NHR and CHR. The energetics of 6HB formation drives membrane apposition and fusion. Drugs targeting gp41 functional domains to prevent 6HB formation inhibit HIV-1 infection. T20 (enfuvirtide, Fuzeon) was approved by the US FDA in 2003 as the first fusion inhibitor. It is a 36-residue peptide from the gp41 CHR, and it inhibits 6HB formation by targeting NHR and lipids. Development of new fusion inhibitors, especially small molecule drugs, is encouraged to overcome the shortcomings of T20 as a peptide drug. Hydrophobic characteristics and membrane association are critical for gp41 function and mechanism of action. Research in gp41-membrane interactions, using peptides corresponding to specific functional domains, or constructs including several interactive domains, are reviewed here to get a better understanding of gp41 mediated virus-cell fusion that can inform or guide the design of new HIV-1 fusion inhibitors.
Keywords: HIV-1, gp41, membrane fusion, fusion inhibitor, peptide, immunodeficiency syndrome, membrane proximal extracellular region (MPER), coiled-coil 6-helix bundle (6HB), T20, virus-cell fusion, antiretroviral therapy, cocktail therapy, drug resistance, less toxic and cheaper antiretroviral drugs, fusion machinery
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