Although a highly effective vaccine is available, the number of yellow fever cases has increased over the past two decades, which highlights the pressing need for antiviral therapeutics. In a high throughput screening campaign, we identified an acetic acid benzodiazepine (BDAA) compound, which potently inhibits yellow fever virus (YFV). Interestingly, while treatment of YFV infected cultures with 2 μM of BDAA reduced the virion production by greater than 2 logs, the compound is not active against 21 other viruses from 14 different viral families. Selection and genetic analysis of drug resistant viruses revealed that substitution of proline at amino acid 219 (P219) of the nonstructural protein 4B (NS4B) with serine, threonine or alanine confers YFV resistance to BDAA without apparent loss of replication fitness in cultured mammalian cells. However, substitution of P219 with glycine confers BDAA resistance with significant loss of replication ability. Bioinformatics analysis predicts that the P219 localizes at the endoplasmic reticulum lumen side of the fifth putative trans-membrane domain of NS4B and the mutation may render the viral protein incapable of interacting with BDAA. Our studies thus revealed important role and structural basis for NS4B protein in supporting YFV replication. Moreover, in YFV-infected hamsters, oral administration of BDAA protected 90% of the animals from death, significantly reduced viral load by greater than 2 logs and attenuated viral infection-induced liver injury and body weight loss. The encouraging preclinical results thus warrant further development of BDAA or its derivatives as antiviral agents to treat yellow fever.
Yellow fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic disease which threatens approximately one billion people living in tropical areas of Africa and Latin America. Although a highly effective yellow fever vaccine has been available for more than seven decades, the low vaccination rate fails to prevent outbreaks in at-risk regions. It has been estimated that up to 1.7 million YFV infections occur in Africa each year, resulting in 29,000 to 60,000 death. Thus far, there is no specific antiviral treatment for yellow fever. To cope with this medical challenge, we identified a benzodiazepine compound that selectively inhibits YFV by targeting the viral NS4B protein. To our knowledge, this is the first report demonstrating in vivo safety and antiviral efficacy of an YFV NS4B inhibitor in an animal model. We have thus reached a critical milestone toward the development of specific antiviral therapeutics for clinical management of yellow fever.