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Resistance to existing HIV therapies is an increasing problem, and alternative treatments are urgently needed. RNA interference (RNAi), an innate mechanism for sequence-specific gene silencing, can be harnessed therapeutically to treat viral infections, yet viral resistance can still emerge. Here, we demonstrate that HIV can develop indirect resistance to individual and combinatorial RNAi-targeting protein-coding regions up to 5,500 nucleotides (nt) downstream of the viral promoter. We identify several variants harboring mutations in the HIV promoter, and not within the RNAi targets, that produce more fully elongated transcripts. Furthermore, these variants are resistant to the RNAi, potentially by stoichiometrically overwhelming this cellular mechanism. Alarmingly, virus resistant to one short hairpin RNA (shRNA) also exhibits cross-resistance to a different shRNA, which targets a distinct and spatially distant region to which the virus has not been previously exposed. To our knowledge, this is the first example of HIV "cross-resistance" to viral inhibitors targeting different loci. Finally, combining anti-HIV RNAi with a small molecule enhancer of RNAi can inhibit the replication of an indirectly resistant mutant. These results suggest that indirect resistance to RNAi is a general mechanism that should be considered when investigating viral resistance and designing combinatorial RNAi therapies.


Priya S Shah, Nhung P Pham, David V Schaffer. HIV develops indirect cross-resistance to combinatorial RNAi targeting two distinct and spatially distant sites. Molecular therapy : the journal of the American Society of Gene Therapy. 2012 Apr;20(4):840-8

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PMID: 22294151

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