20 (enfuvirtide) and other peptides derived from the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) gp41 C-terminal heptad repeat (CHR) region inhibit HIV fusion by binding to the hydrophobic grooves on the N-terminal heptad repeat (NHR) trimer and blocking six-helix-bundle (6-HB) formation. Several strategies focusing on the binding grooves of the NHR trimer have been adopted to increase the antiviral activity of the CHR peptides. Here, we developed a novel and simple strategy to greatly enhance the potency of the existing peptide-based HIV fusion inhibitors. First, we identified a shallow pocket adjacent to the groove in the N-terminal region of NHR trimer as a new drug target, and then we designed several short artificial peptides to fit this target. After the addition of IDL (Ile-Asp-Leu) to the C terminus of CHR peptide WQ or MT-WQ, the conjugated peptides, WQ-IDL and MT-WQ-IDL, showed much more potent activities than WQ and T20, respectively, in inhibiting HIV-1 IIIB infection. WQ-IDL and MT-WQ-IDL were also more effective than WQ in blocking HIV-1 Env-mediated membrane fusion and had higher levels of binding affinity with NHR peptide N46. We solved the crystal structure of the 6-HB formed by MT-WQ-IDL and N46 and found that, besides the N-terminal MT hook tail, the IDL tail anchor of MT-WQ-IDL also binds with the shallow hydrophobic pocket outside the groove of the NHR trimer, resulting in enhanced inhibition of HIV-1 fusion with the target cell. It is expected that this novel approach can be widely used to improve the potency of peptidic fusion inhibitors against other enveloped viruses with class I fusion proteins.
The hydrophobic groove of the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) gp41 NHR trimer has been known as the classic drug target to develop fusion inhibitors derived from the gp41 CHR. Here, we developed a novel and simple strategy to improve the existing peptide-based HIV fusion inhibitors. We identified a shallow pocket adjacent to the groove in the NHR trimer and added a short artificial peptide consisting of three amino acids (IDL) to the C terminus of a fusion inhibitor to fit this new target. The inhibition activity of this new conjugated peptide was significantly enhanced, by 77-fold, making it much more potent than T20 (enfuvirtide) and suggesting that the IDL tail can be adopted for optimizing existing HIV-1 CHR peptide fusion inhibitors. This new approach of identifying a potential binding pocket outside the traditional target and creating an artificial tail anchor can be widely applied to design novel fusion inhibitors against other class I enveloped viruses, such as Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).