Inhibition of hepatitis C virus p7 membrane channels in a liposome-based assay system
Chemotherapy for patients chronically infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV) is ineffective in over 50% of cases, generating a high demand for new drug targets. The p7 protein of HCV displays membrane channel activity in vitro and is essential for replication in vivo though its precise role in the virus life cycle is unknown. p7 channel activity can be specifically inhibited by several classes of compounds, making this protein an attractive candidate for drug development, though techniques used to date in characterising this protein are unsuited to compound library screening. Here we describe an assay for the channel forming ability of p7 based on the release of a fluorescent indicator from liposomes. We show that recombinant p7 from genotype 1b HCV causes a dose-dependent release of dye when mixed with liposomes and that this property is enhanced at acidic pH. We demonstrate that this activity is due to the formation of a size-selective pore rather than non-specific disruption of liposomes and that activity can be blocked by amantadine and several other compounds, validating it as a measure of p7 channel function. This system provides the first convenient in vitro assay for exploiting p7 as a therapeutic target.