Background & aims: Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is a major cause of chronic liver disease and is associated with significant morbidity and mortality. Since there is evidence for an interaction of NS5A with c-Raf we studied whether the c-Raf inhibitor sorafenib affects HCV replication.
Methods: HCV replicating HuH7.5 cells were treated with sorafenib and examined for HCV RNA titres by Northern blotting or real time PCR, for core, NS3 and NS5A expression by immunostaining, and for replication by luciferase reporter assays.
Results: Here we demonstrate that in cells replicating infectious HCV particles, NS5A recruits c-Raf to the replicon complex resulting in the activation of c-Raf. Therefore, we studied the effect of inhibition of c-Raf on HCV replication using the anti-tumor drug sorafenib that is known to inhibit c-Raf with high specificity. Sorafenib efficiently blocks HCV replication and viral gene expression. In addition, in HCV-replicating cells sorafenib decreased the hyperphosphorylated form of NS5A and resulted in the formation of additional hypophosphorylated forms. Further, sorafenib caused a rapid dissociation of lipid droplets.
We provide evidence that the antiviral effect of sorafenib indeed is caused by inhibition of c-Raf. By contrast, inhibition of targets downstream of c-Raf or inhibition of tyrosine kinases by sunitinib did not affect HCV replication.
Conclusion: Our data demonstrate that the well-characterized anti-tumor drug sorafenib efficiently blocks HCV replication in vitro. This novel effect of sorafenib should be further explored as an antiviral strategy for patients with chronic HCV infection.