The trimeric HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein spike (Env) mediates viral entry into cells using a spring-loaded mechanism that allows for the controlled insertion of the Env fusion peptide into the target membrane, followed by membrane fusion. Env is the focus of vaccine research aimed at inducing protective immunity by antibodies as well as efforts to develop drugs that inhibit the viral entry process. The molecular factors contributing to Env stability and decay need to be better understood in order to optimally design vaccines and therapeutics. We generated escape viruses against VIR165, a peptidic inhibitor that binds the fusion peptide of the gp41 subunit and prevents its insertion into the target membrane. Interestingly, a number of escape viruses acquired substitutions in the C1 domain of the gp120 subunit (A60E, E64K and H66R) that rendered these viruses dependent on the inhibitor. These viruses could only infect target cells when VIR165 was present after CD4 binding. Furthermore, the VIR165-dependent viruses were resistant to soluble CD4-induced Env destabilization and decay. These data suggest that VIR165-dependent Env proteins are kinetically trapped in the unliganded state and require the drug to negotiate CD4-induced conformational changes. These studies provide mechanistic insight into the action of the gp41 fusion peptide and its inhibitors, and provide new ways to stabilize Env trimer vaccines.
Because of the rapid development of HIV-1 drug resistance new drug targets need to be continuously explored. The fusion peptide of the envelope glycoprotein can be targeted by anchor inhibitors. Here we describe virus escape from the anchor inhibitor VIR165. Interestingly, some escape viruses became dependent on the inhibitor for cell entry. We show that the identified escape mutations stabilize the ground state of the envelope glycoprotein and should thus be useful in the design of stabilized envelope-based HIV vaccines.