GSBS Dissertations and Theses

Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology


Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology

First Thesis Advisor

Celia A. Schiffer, Ph.D.


HIV-1, HIV Protease, HIV Protease Inhibitors, Drug Resistance, Viral, gag Gene Products, Human Immunodeficiency Virus


Drug resistance is the most important factor that influences the successful treatment of individuals infected with the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), the causative organism of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Tremendous advances in our understanding of HIV and AIDS have led to the development of Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART), a combination of drugs that includes HIV-1 reverse transcriptase, protease, and more recently, integrase and entry inhibitors, to combat the virus. Though HAART has been successful in reducing AIDS-related morbidity and mortality, HIV rapidly evolves resistance leading to therapy failure. Thus, a better understanding of the mechanisms of resistance will lead to improved drugs and treatment regimens.

Protease inhibitors (PIs) play an important role in anti-retroviral therapy. The development of resistance mutations within the active site of the protease greatly reduces its affinity for the protease inhibitors. Frequently, these mutations reduce catalytic efficiency of the protease leading to an overall reduction in viral fitness. In order to overcome this loss in fitness the virus evolves compensatory mutations within the protease cleavage sites that allow the protease to continue to recognize and cleave its substrates while lowering affinity for the PIs. Improved knowledge of this substrate co-evolution would help better understand how HIV-1 evolves resistance and thus, lead to improved therapeutic strategies. Sequence analyses and structural studies were performed to investigate co-evolution of HIV-1 protease and its cleavage sites. Though a few studies reported the co-evolution within Gag, including the protease cleavage sites, a more extensive study was lacking, especially as drug resistance was becoming increasingly severe.

In Chapter II, a small set of viral sequences from infected individuals were analyzed for mutations within the Gag cleavage sites that co-occurred with primary drug resistance mutations within the protease. These studies revealed that mutations within the p1p6 cleavage site coevolved with the nelfinavir-resistant protease mutations. As a result of increasing number of infected individuals being treated with PIs leading to the accumulation of PI resistant protease mutations, and with increasing efforts at genotypic and phenotypic resistance testing, access to a larger database of resistance information has been made possible. Thus in Chapter III, over 39,000 sequences were analyzed for mutations within NC-p1, p1-6, Autoproteolysis, and PR-RT cleavage sites and several instances of substrate co-evolution were identified. Mutations in both the NC-p1 and the p1-p6 cleavage sites were associated with at least one, if not more, primary resistance mutations in the protease.

Previous studies have demonstrated that mutations within the Gag cleavage sites enhance viral fitness and/or resistance when they occur in combination with primary drug resistance mutations within the protease. In Chapter III viral fitness in the presence and absence of cleavage site mutations in combination with primary drug resistant protease mutations was analyzed to investigate the impact of the observed co-evolution. These studies showed no significant changes in viral fitness. Additionally in Chapter III, the impact of these correlating mutations on phenotypic susceptibilities to various PIs was also analyzed. Phenotypic susceptibilities to various PIs were altered significantly when cleavage site mutations occurred in combination with primary protease mutations. In order to probe the underlying mechanisms for substrate co-evolution, in Chapter IV, X-ray crystallographic studies were performed to investigate structural changes in complexes of WT and D30N/N88D protease variants and the p1p6 peptide variants. Peptide variants corresponding to p1p6 cleavage site were designed, and included mutations observed in combination with the D30N/N88D protease mutation. Structural analyses of these complexes revealed several correlating changes in van der Waals contacts and hydrogen bonding as a result of the mutations. These changes in interactions suggest a mechanism for improving viral fitness as a result of co-evolution.

This thesis research successfully identified several instance of co-evolution between primary drug resistant mutations in the protease and mutations within NC-p1 and p1p6 cleavage sites. Additionally, phenotypic susceptibilities to various PIs were significantly altered as a result of these correlated mutations. The structural studies also provided insights into the mechanism underlying substrate co-evolution. These data advance our understanding of substrate co-evolution and drug resistance, and will facilitate future studies to improve therapeutic strategies.



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