Interferon- γ as a Potential Inhibitor of SARS-CoV-2 ORF6 Accessory Protein

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ORF6 protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus plays a crucial role in blocking the innate immune response of the infected cells by inhibiting interferon pathways. Additionally, it binds and immobilises the RAE1 protein onto the cytoplasmic membranes, thereby blocking the transport of mRNA from the nucleus to the cytoplasm. In all these cases the host cell proteins are tethered by the flexible C-terminus of ORF6. A possible strategy to inhibit the biological activity of ORF6 is to bind its C-terminus with suitable ligands. Our in silico experiments suggest that hIFN γ binds the ORF6 protein with high affinity, thus impairing its interactions with RAE1 and, consequently, its activity in viral invasion. The here reported in vitro studies reveal a shift of the localization of RAE1 in ORF6 overexpressing cells upon treatment with hIFN γ from predominantly cytoplasmic to mainly nuclear, resulting in restoration of the export of mRNA from the nucleus. We also explored the expression of GFP in transfected with ORF6 cells by means of fluorescence microscopy and qRT-PCR, finding that treatment with hIFN γ unblocks the mRNA trafficking and reinstates the GFP expression level. The ability of the cytokine to block ORF6 is also reflected in minimising its negative effects on DNA replication by reducing accumulated RNA-DNA hybrids. Our results, therefore, suggest hIFN γ as a promising inhibitor of the most toxic SARS-CoV-2 protein.

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