Virologist Stefan Sarafianos stands in the atrium of the Bond LSC.

Bond LSC researcher Stefan Sarafianos stands in the LSC atrium. The virologist is an associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology and Chancellor’s Chair of Excellence in Molecular Virology with appointments in MU’s School of Medicine and the Department of Biochemistry.

Resistance is the price of success when it comes to treating HIV.

Virologists at the Bond Life Sciences Center are helping to test the next generation of anti-AIDS medication to quell that resistance.

Stefan Sarafianos’ lab recently proved that EFdA, a compound that stops HIV from spreading, is 70 times more potent against some HIV that resists Tenofovir – one of the most used HIV drugs.

“HIV in patients treated with Tenofovir eventually develop a K65R RT mutation that causes a failure of this first line of defense,” said Sarafianos, virologist at Bond LSC. “Not only does EFdA work on resistant HIV, but it works 10 times better than on wild-type HIV that hasn’t become Tenofovir resistant.”

Sarafianos and a team of researchers found that EFdA (4′-ethynyl-2-fluoro-2′-deoxyadenosine) is activated by cells more readily and isn’t broken down by the liver and kidneys as quickly as similar existing drugs.

“These two reasons make it more potent than other drugs, and so our task is to look at the structural features that make it such a fantastic drug,” he said.


From soy sauce to virus killer

The path from EFdA’s discovery to current research is a bit unorthodox.

A Japanese soy sauce company named Yamasa patented this molecule, which falls into a family of compounds called nucleoside analogues that are very similar to existing drugs for HIV and other viruses. EFdA was designed and synthesized by Hiroshi Ohrui (Chem Rec. 2006; 6 (3), 133-143Org. Lett. 2011; 13, 5264) and shown by Hiroaki Mitsuya, Eiichi Kodama, and Yamasa to have potential usefulness against HIV. Samples sent for further testing confirmed EFdA’s potential usefulness against HIV. This started more than a decade of research to pinpoint what makes the compound special.

EFdA joins a class of compounds called nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) that includes eight existing HIV drugs. Like all NRTIs, EFdA hijacks the process HIV uses to spread by tricking an enzyme called reverse transcriptase (RT). RT helps build new DNA from the RNA in HIV, assembling nucleoside building blocks into a chain. Since EFdA looks like those building blocks, RT is tricked into using the imposter. When this happens the virus’ code cannot be added to the DNA of white blood cells it attacks.

“NRTIs are called chain terminators because they stop the copying of the DNA chain, and once incorporated it’s like a dead end,” Sarafianos said.


A little help from some friends

Sarafianos isn’t alone in studying EFdA.

The virologist’s lab works closely with University of Pittsburgh biochemist Michael Parniak and the National Institutes of Health’s Hiroaki Mitsuya to explore the molecule’s potential. Mitsuya had a hand in discovering the first three drugs to treat HIV and Parniak has spent years evaluating HIV treatments using cultured white blood cells.

Sarafianos’ focus requires him to take a very close look at EFdA to define how it works on a molecular level. He uses virology, crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance to piece together the exact structure, bonding angles and configuration of the compound.

By looking at subtle differences in EFdA’s sugar-like ring, his lab identified the best structure that looks the most like actual nucleosides, doesn’t break down easily and is activated readily by CD4+ T lymphocyte white blood cells.

“The structure of this compound is very important because it’s a lock and key kind of mechanism that can be recognized by the target,” Sarafianos said. “We’re looking at small changes and the ideal scenario is a compound bound very efficiently by the target and activating enzyme but not efficiently by the degrading enzymes.”


Treatment for the future

The research of Sarafianos, Parniak and Mitsuya continue to uncover the magic of EFdA. In 2012, they showed that the drug worked incredibly well to treat the HIV equivalent in monkeys.

“These animals were so lethargic, so ill, that they were scheduled to be euthanized when EFdA was administered,” said Parniak. “Within a month they were bouncing around in their cages, looking very happy and their virus load dropped to undetectable levels. That shows you the activity of the molecule; it’s so active that resistance doesn’t come in as much of a factor with it.”

HIV prevention is the newest focus in their collaboration.

By recruiting formulation expert Lisa Rohan at the University of Pittsburgh, they are now putting EFdA in a vaginal film with a consistency similar to Listerine breath strips.

“The only way we are going to make a difference with HIV is prevention,” Parniak said. “If we can prevent transmission, this approach could make a huge difference in minimizing the continued spread of the disease when combined with existing therapies for people already infected.”

While AIDS in the U.S. occurs mostly in men, the opposite is true in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 70 percent of HIV cases occur. Since a film has a better shelf life than creams or gels, it could benefit those at risk in extreme climates and third-world countries.

“We have nearly 30 drugs approved for treating HIV infected individuals, but only one approved for prevention,” Sarafianos said. “Women in Africa would benefit from a formulation like this as a means to protect themselves.”

Despite this success, Sarafianos and Parniak aren’t slowing down in figuring out how EFdA works so well.

“We want to understand how long EFdA stays in the bloodstream and cells,” Parniak said. “If we understand structurally why this drug is so potent it allows us to maybe develop additional molecules equally potent, and a combination of those molecules could be a blockbuster.”

Grants from the National Institutes of Health fund this research.

In 2013 and 2014, the journals Retrovirology, Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy and The International Journal of Pharmaceutics published this group’s work on EFdA. Sarafianos is an associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology and Chancellor’s Chair of Excellence in molecular virology with MU’s School of Medicine and a joint associate professor of biochemistry in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.