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Discovery of Small-Molecule Inhibitors of HCV NS3-4A Protease as Potential Therapeutic Agents against HCV Infection

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Chronic infection with hepatitis C virus (HCV) is associated with liver cirrhosis that often leads to hepatic failure and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). HCV infection has become a global health threat and the main cause of adult liver transplants in developed nations. Current approved anti-HCV therapies (interferon and pegylated interferon alone or in combination with ribavirin) are not effective in eliminating the viral infection in a significant population of patients (e.g., those infected with HCV genotype 1). Furthermore, these therapies are plagued with many undesirable side effects. Therefore, the HCV epidemic represents a huge unmet medical need that has triggered intensive research efforts towards the development of more effective drugs.

Given its essential role in the process of HCV replication, the viral NS3/4A serine protease is arguably the most thoroughly characterized HCV enzyme and the most intensively pursued anti-HCV target for drug development. This is further fueled by the successful use of small-molecule inhibitors of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) viral protease, which have had an impressive effect on HIV-related morbidity and mortality, offering hope that analogous drugs might also have a similar impact against HCV. Here, we review the recent progress and development of small-molecule inhibitors of the HCV NS3/4A protease. In particular, we focus on the discovery of VX-950, the latest HCV NS3-4A protease inhibitor to be advanced to clinical studies.

While the challenges of designing potent inhibitors of the viral protease have been solved, as highlighted by BILN 2061 and VX-950, it is still too early to determine whether these efforts will eventually yield promising drug candidates. For the emerging small-molecule HCV inhibitors, viral resistance will likely be a big problem. Thus, combination therapy of different drugs with different targets/mechanisms will be necessary to effectively inhibit HCV replication. It is also hoped that a detail characterization of how the resistance mutations that affect NS3 inhibitor binding may provide useful information for the design of inhibitors with the potential to treat resistant viruses that may arise during chronic HCV infection.
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Keywords: hcv infections; ns protease; ns protease inhibitors; viral resistance; vx

Document Type: Review Article

Affiliations: WuXi PharmaTech Co., Ltd., No. 1 Building, 288 FuTe ZhongLu, WaiGaoQiao Free Trade Zone, Shanghai, 200131, P. R. China.

Publication date: 2005-09-01

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