Chemotherapy of Viral Infections Erik De Clercq General Concepts Basic Mechanisms

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Chemotherapy of Viral Infections

Erik De Clercq

General Concepts

Basic Mechanisms

Antiviral drugs specifically inhibit one or more steps of virus replication without causing unacceptable side effects.

Approved Antiviral Drugs

The approved antiviral drugs and the viruses and diseases they treat are

  • amantadine and rimantadine (influenza A virus),

  • ribavirin (respiratory syncytial virus),

  • idoxuridine and trifluridine (topical treatment of herpetic keratitis),

  • vidarabine and acyclovir (systemic treatment of herpes simplex virus and varicella-zoster virus infections),

  • famciclovir and valaciclovir (oral treatment of varicella-zoster virus infections),

  • ganciclovir and foscarnet (cytomegalovirus), and

  • zidovudine, didanosine, zalcitabine and stavudine (human immunodeficiency virus).

Future Antiviral Drugs

To overcome the limitations of current antiviral drugs, more effective compounds are being developed that allow

  • greater inhibition of viruses,

  • greater selectivity for virus-specific functions, and

  • fewer side effects, and

  • may avoid emergence of resistant mutants.

Main Targets for Antiviral Drugs

Specific events in virus replication identified as targets for antiviral agents are

  • viral adsorption,

  • penetration,

  • uncoating, and

  • viral nucleic acid synthesis as well as

  • viral protein synthesis.

Specificity for infected cells may occur when virus-specified enzymes (e.g., thymidine kinase-induced by herpes simplex virus or varicella-zoster virus) activate drugs (e.g., acyclovir).

Limitations of Antiviral Drugs

Limitations include a

  • narrow antiviral spectrum,

  • ineffectiveness against the latent virus,

  • development of drug-resistant mutants and

  • toxic side effects.


We live in a time of rapid development of antiviral compounds. For selective chemotherapy of viral infections, a drug should inhibit virus replication when used at concentrations not detrimental to the host. A number of antiviral drugs have been formally licensed and are widely used for the chemotherapy of specific viral infections. Other antiviral agents are being developed. These fall primarily in three classes:

  • anti-herpesvirus,

  • anti-retrovirus, and,

  • to a lesser extent, anti-rhinovirus compounds.

The mechanisms of action targeting virus-specific events are being studied. Antiviral chemotherapy offers a decisive approach to the control of virus, notwithstanding some current limitations.

Basic Mechanisms

Specificity against virus replication is the key issue in chemotherapy. Because of the close interaction between virus replication and normal cellular metabolism, it was originally thought too difficult to interrupt the virus replicative cycle without adversely affecting the host cell metabolism. It is now clear, however, that several events in the virus replicative cycle either do not occur in normal uninfected cells or are controlled by virus-specified enzymes that differ structurally and functionally from the corresponding host cell enzymes.

Quite schematically, the virus replicative cycle can be divided into 10 steps (Fig. 52-1):

  1. adsorption,

  2. penetration,

  3. uncoating,

  4. early transcription,

  5. early translation,

  6. replication of the viral genome,

  7. late transcription,

  8. late translation,

  9. assembly, and

  10. release of new virus particles.

Adsorption, penetration, and uncoating are typical examples of replicative events that are specific for virus infection and do not occur in uninfected cells (see Ch. 42). Examples of virus replication steps controlled by virus-specified enzymes are the transcription of positive-sense RNA to DNA (catalyzed by the reverse transcriptase associated with retroviruses), the replication of DNA to DNA (catalyzed by the DNA polymerases of herpesviruses), and the proteolytic cleavage of viral precursor proteins (catalyzed by the protease of human immunodeficiency virus).

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