The recent development of a cell culture model of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection based on the JFH-1 molecular clone has enabled discovery of new antiviral agents. Using a cell-based colorimetric screening assay to interrogate a 1,200-compound chemical library for anti-HCV activity, we identified a family of 1,2-diamines derived from trans-stilbene oxide that prevent HCV infection at nontoxic, low micromolar concentrations in cell culture. Structure-activity relationship analysis of ~300 derivatives synthesized using click chemistry yielded compounds with greatly enhanced low nanomolar potency and a >1,000:1 therapeutic ratio. Using surrogate models of HCV infection, we showed that the compounds selectively block the initiation of replication of incoming HCV RNA but have no impact on viral entry, primary translation, or ongoing HCV RNA replication, nor do they suppress persistent HCV infection. Selection of an escape variant revealed that NS5A is directly or indirectly targeted by this compound. In summary, we have identified a family of HCV inhibitors that target a critical step in the establishment of HCV infection in which NS5A translated de novo from an incoming genomic HCV RNA template is required to initiate the replication of this important human pathogen.
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