Flaviviruses bear class II fusion proteins as their envelope (E) proteins. Here, we describe the development of an in vitro quantitative mosquito-cell-based membrane-fusion assay for the E protein using dual split proteins (DSPs). The assay does not involve the use of live viruses and allows the analysis of a membrane-fusion step independent of other events in the viral lifecycle, such as endocytosis. The progress of membrane fusion can be monitored continuously by measuring the activities of luciferase derived from the reassociation of DSPs during cell fusion. We optimized the assay to screen an FDA-approved drug library for a potential membrane fusion inhibitor using the E protein of Zika virus. Screening results identified atovaquone, which was previously described as an antimalarial agent. Atovaquone potently blocked the in vitro Zika virus infection of mammalian cells with an IC of 2.1 µM. Furthermore, four distinct serotypes of dengue virus were also inhibited by atovaquone with IC values of 1.6-2.5 µM, which is a range below the average blood concentration of atovaquone after its oral administration in humans. These findings make atovaquone a likely candidate drug to treat illnesses caused by Zika as well as dengue viruses. Additionally, the DSP assay is useful to study the mechanism of membrane fusion in Flaviviruses.
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